CHICAGO — “Being a woman is no job for a man,” Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana) concludes in the winning but inconsistent Broadway-bound musical comedy Tootsie, which opened last night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre here. So how come his Dorothy Michaels holds the stage as well as his Michael Dorsey?
In an auburn wig, beige high heels and glasses, Fontana is sublime as Michael/Dorothy, the temperamental, opinionated, unemployed New York actor who finds stardom and self-awareness after putting on a dress and posing as an actress. Fontana borrows a gesture or two from Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the brilliant 1982 Columbia Pictures comedy. But Fontana makes the role his own with fine timing, crisp dancing and a gender-bending vocal range interpreting David Yazbek’s varied and mostly wonderful score. (Plus, of course, nonstop changes of William Ivey Long’s wry costumes.)
The creators of the highly anticipated musical, who include book writer Robert Horn (13: The Musical) and director Scott Ellis (She Loves Me), made shrewd revisions to the movie’s plot. Gone is the schlocky soap opera Southwest General that Hoffman’s Dorothy upends, replaced by a schlocky Romeo & Juliet-inspired musical. The musical-within-the-musical allows Dorothy to win over the audience early with a sweet audition ballad, “I Won’t Let You Down.”
As in the movie, the friendship of Dorothy and co-star Julie Nichols (Lili Cooper, outstanding) evolves into something more complicated and comic. Meanwhile, Dorothy is pursued by a hunky but dumb veteran of reality TV, nicely underplayed by John Behlmann, except when the role calls for overplaying. Andy Grotelueschen, who with his bushy beard could’ve been plucked from an Ed Koren New Yorker cartoon, does well with the Bill Murray character, a blocked playwright who is Michael’s roommate. Julie Halston is great fun as a brash producer.
Yazbek’s generally uptempo score — which blends blues, jazz, 1960s pop and traditional musical theater — is more reminiscent of his earlier Broadway movie adaptations, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty, than last year’s Middle East-infused The Band’s Visit. A highlight is the jaunty backstage song “I Like What He’s Doing,” about straight-talking Dorothy elevating the show-within-the-show and the workplace.
Tootsie was capitalized at a hefty $20 million, and David Rockwell’s sets are suitably spectacular. With an Art Deco cityscape backdrop, they take us from a park bench to the subway to Michael’s apartment to a 42nd Street rehearsal room to a restaurant to a nightclub to the theater.
While the tortured central romance is fleshed out — Julie and Michael/Dorothy bond over their single-minded devotion to acting — the show has too many broad gags and one-liners that derail the momentum of the story. Several of the supporting characters are caricatures that grow tiresome. (Although Reg Rogers does get big laughs as a narcissistic director who pulls out his Tony on a picnic). The strong score has two weak spots: a generic act-two number about the high stakes of opening night; and Tootsie’s opener, from a musical-within-a-musical that Michael is fired from, which undersells what’s to come.
There is one ingenious plot innovation I won’t give away, reflecting an area where societal attitudes have made big strides since 1982. Otherwise, close students of the movie won’t find many new ideas about sex and power in the musical.
With some work, the Tootsie creators, most of them men, should have a successful crowd-pleaser on their hands. Ideally, they’ll also give the Broadway audience more to chew on.
Tootsie is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Oct. 14. It begins previews at the Marriott Marquis on March 29.