If you’ve seen Tootsie, the 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, then you have a keen idea of the romantic and hilarious hijinks involving a down-on-his-luck actor who takes on the appearance of a women to land an acting role. It turns him into a media sensation and muddles his love life. It is a decision certainly born out of selfishness, but subsequently bears great ontological insights as expressed through reflections of the lead character. Before this realization comes to fruition, though, it is a story rife with top-notch entertainment value.
Just as worthwhile is the 2018-premiering musical adaptation, which has finally made its way to Los Angeles via the Dolby Theatre (through May 15th), where audiences can just sit back and live vicariously through colorful scenes that thrive on absurdity. Tootsie is an outstandingly outlandish piece of musical theatre that doesn’t take itself too seriously except when it needs to responsibly address sensitive issues through the lens of today’s sociopolitical consciousness. The result is a guilt-free, unmitigated boffo of heartwarming laughs, claps, and probably high fives if Covid were no longer a concern.
Robert Horn’s book effectively brings the premise into the current age with hysterical one-liners aplenty, and David Yazbek, who also scored The Band’s Visit, shows his versatility with a musical that allows him to let loose and throw caution to the wind, albeit with classically refined elements that rein in the noise when suitable. Yazbek’s lyrics, too, are genuinely clever, and don’t resort to predictable rhyme schemes. Director Dave Solomon ostensibly gives his performers the freedom to create and express their characters without constraints, and choreographer Denis Jones’ routines are effervescent, physically comedic, and absolutely engaging. Special attention should also be given to tour scenic designer Christine Peters who highlights the New York skyline, and ingeniously uses skyscraper “cubes” on wheels which unfurl to become the wall of the protagonist’s apartment.
At the forefront of the premise is 40-year-old actor Michael Dorsey, who is struggling and exceedingly opinionated, causing him to not only lose out on roles but obliterate bridges. To this point, a director/choreographer named Ron Carlisle gets fed up with Dorsey, whose plain-spoken agent, Stan Fields, subsequently fires the thespian. Dorsey often seeks counsel from his observant and hysterically wise roommate, Jeff Slater, with whom he works with at a steakhouse and is also roommates with. It is not until Dorsey’s ex, the chronically perturbed Sandy Lester, brings to light an audition for the part of a nurse in a new Broadway musical, “Juliet’s Curse” (featuring dim-witted reality star Max Van Horn), that Dorsey gets the idea to audition not as himself, but a middle-aged woman named “Dorothy Michaels.” With a little nudge from the musical’s producer, Rita Marshall, Dorsey gets his big break professionally but has his personal life complicated when he falls for the starring female in “Juliet’s Curse” — Julie Nichols.
As Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, Drew Becker gives a terrific performance, shifting seamlessly between the characterizations of the flawed actor and the inspirational Michaels. The audience soon realizes Becker has the vocal chops to sing as Dorothy during “Whaddya Do,” when he shows off his melodious higher register. When Dorothy debuts during the audition, she immediately comes across as sagacious, strong, and honest; this is in stark contrast to Dorsey. Undoubtedly, Becker is in a difficult spot juggling the insecurities of Dorsey, the can’t-do-wrong Dorothy, and the overall epiphanies of his portrayal – but he does so winningly in both a dramatic and uproarious fashion.
Dorsey’s best friend, Jeff Slater, is played by Jared David Michael Grant who commands the stage with his relatable presence as the comic sidekick. Grant is amazing at representing the disbelief and surprise of the audience – and he does so effortlessly with a just a glance or a deer-in-the-headlights pause. When Jeff’s exasperation swells during “Jeff Sums It Up,” Grant gets across his character’s frustrations in such a funny manner that one cannot help but tip their hat at Grant’s skill as an actor. It should also be noted that his Jeff addresses the controversies of a man (Dorsey) disingenuously becoming a woman for self-aggrandizement; such talking points adeptly steer the narrative into the 21st century.
The object of Dorsey’s affection is Julie Nichols (Ashley Alexandra), an actress who admits that her choices haven’t been without consequences, but just wants a man who is understanding and loving. However, Nichols finds common ground and vulnerability in the unlikeliest of individuals: Dorothy. It is, though, a relationship founded on confusion and falsehoods, which the talented Ashley Alexandra communicates with a wistfulness sweetness in “Who Are You?” Alexandra can also sing with the best of them, belting beautifully in “Gone, Gone, Gone.” It is nonetheless the execution of her character as a serious counterpart to Becker’s Dorsey which gives Tootsie much of its substance.
Adding to the howls of laughter is Payton Reilly’s Sandy Lester, whose feelings of dread and anguish are turned up to eleven. Sandy is downtrodden about losing out on the part of the nurse and has no filter when it comes to expressing how she feels at a million miles per hour, both with words and with larger-than-life physical expressions. Reilly is an unflagging burst of life onstage, vocalizing “What’s Gonna Happen” with a diction that is uncompromised while raging in character to the tune of riotous applause.
Lukas James Miller’s Max Van Horn is memorable for reasons of his own as the drolly dull-brained, pecs-out TV star who is astonishingly drawn to Dorothy’s “tractor” build. Miller does an excellent job at warming up the crowd to him in Act I before unconditionally winning them over with a sidesplitting display of gags and punctuated lyrics during Act II’s “This Thing.” In addition, as the flamboyant director/choreographer Ron Carlisle, Adam Du Plessis leaves an impression with a depiction that is amusingly conceited and unapologetically over the top; Carlisle’s “accentuated movements” elicit a positive reaction every time.
Furthermore, as talent agent Stan Fields, Steve Brustien shines with a superb timing in delivering guffaw-inducing flare-ups that are especially highlighted when he visits his client’s apartment after blowing him off months prior. And, as impresario Rita Marshall, veteran Kathy Halenda brings a wonderful assertiveness and heart to the stage. Finally, the ensemble cast members deserve ample praise for keeping the overall energy unrelenting with their preternaturally quick dance maneuvers.
In truth, Tootsie shouldn’t be as good as it is. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, a man dressing up as a woman for laughs is at best overdone and, at worst, outmoded as a comic device. Despite the tall odds, the national tour of Tootsie makes a 40-year-old plot new again by being clever, thoughtful, and sometimes even delicate in how it approaches its message. Best of all, as it explores different allegories, the musical never lets up in earning flurries of laughter, and a lasting appreciation, from its enthralled audience.
COVID Policy: While vaccination records are currently not being checked upon entry, kindly be advised that masks must be worn inside the Dolby Theatre unless actively eating or drinking.
For more information on Tootsie at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, please visit: broadwayinhollywood.com
And for upcoming dates of the Tootsie National Tour, visit: tootsiemusical.com