By Marc Miller
Santino Fontana. How long have some of us been waiting for him to
become the breakout star we knew he could be? The anticipation goes back at
least to Sons of the Prophet,
through The Importance of
Being Earnest and Act
One and Cinderella,
not to mention all those Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend episodes. Now, in Tootsie,
adapted rather loosely from the much-loved 1982 Dustin Hoffman film farce, he
has the role he needs, and he’s by far the outstanding element in a funny,
expertly wrought, but somehow mildly disappointing musical. Everything about Tootsie is competent or
better, and you’ll watch Act One with a constant smile interrupted only by
occasional out-and-out laughter. But then the machinery starts to clank a bit.
Robert Horn, the book writer whose underwhelming principal credits
are 13 the Musical
and Lone Star Love,
has taken considerable liberties with the great Larry Gelbart-Murray Schisgal
screenplay (with uncredited assistance from, among others, Barry Levinson and
Elaine May). You’ll recall Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, an insufferable actor
whose self-righteousness renders him uncastable, to the point where he has to
disguise himself as Dorothy Michaels, worming his way into a hit TV soap and
straining to maintain the gender illusion. Dorothy’s everything he’s not—warm,
empathetic, gen uinely helpful—and as her admirable traits seep into his skin,
Michael becomes a better man.
The bare bones of the original remain, and Michael/Dorothy still
falls uncomfortably in love with leading lady Julie (Lilli Cooper),
while ex-girlfriend and confidante Sandy (Sarah Stiles) fumes, and
roommate-best pal Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) backs Michael up with deadpan
asides. But the soap opera Dorothy infiltrated is now a stage musical, Juliet’s Curse, a
misbegotten sequel to Romeo
and Juliet (seems she didn’t die after all). Cast as Juliet’s
nurse, Dorothy spars with egotistical director Ron (Reg Rogers) and reshapes
the material around herself, to the point where she has the cast’s full
support, and Juliet’s Curse
becomes Juliet’s Nurse.
Smart rewriting, actually, for the most part: Resetting the
premise on the boards allows Horn and composer-lyricist David Yazbek, joyfully
back in conventional-musical-comedy mode after The Band’s Visit, to saturate the stage with
diegetic production numbers and smart wisecracks about the theater.
Many of the latter come from the show’s producer, Rita (Julie
Halston, always welcome), with additional funny theatrical one-liners from
Michael’s agent, Stan (Michael McGrath, who deserves a great musical of his
own, and is unfortunately limited here to a couple of short scenes). The
leading man of the original, so memorably embodied by George Gaynes, is now the
younger, stupider alpha male Max (John Behlmann), fascinated by Dorothy and
constantly removing his shirt (this is not a bad thing). Then there are Juliet’s Nurse’s writers,
Stuart (Nick Spangler) and Suzie (Britney Coleman), who haven’t much to do.
Got all that? It’s a crowded slate of supporting characters, and
one tends to forget about them when they’re not onstage, which happens for long
stretches. The focus is on Michael/Dorothy, and that’s fine, because Fontana
not only is a credible Dorothy, he’s much more of an actor than most musical
leading men, a splendid singer (in all sorts of ranges), and the possessor of
no small amount of star quality. He also has great timing, and Horn has given
him, and everyone, plenty of zingers. The best punchlines, though, fall to
Grotelueschen, who looks like a heavier, bearded Bill Murray, and hews very
close to the Jeff that Murray gave us in the movie, and Stiles, whose unhinged
Sandy screams a lot, which is funny, for a while. But she’s always angry—come
to think of it, anger’s the default emotion for everybody.
And the high-pitched emotions eventually grow a little wearing, in
both book and score. Yazbek’s a reliable writer of comedy numbers, and his
off-the-wall humor’s intact and his rhymes impressive, from “see ya/Scalia” to
“Dorsey/of course he” to “unstoppable/unpoppable.” His ballads, though, ring a
little hollow here—I’ve no idea what “There Was John,” Julie’s establishing
number, or “Who Are You,” her getting-to-know-you duet with Michael, are trying
to say. Neither Yazbek, Horn, nor Scott Ellis, the director, knows how to
freshen the female-empowerment angle that’s so pervasive on stages everywhere
this season; what Ellis does know how to do is set up a gag, earn the laugh,
and stretch it out. It’s a dead heat with The
Prom, but Tootsie
might be the funniest musical of the year.
No contest, though, in casting—The
Prom by a mile. We love Fontana and Halston and McGrath, but
everyone else is hovering around capable. Cooper’s a no-more-than-serviceable
Julie, Behlmann can’t bring more than one note to Max’s clueless preening, and
Rogers lacks his usual ability to give value-added to an unpleasant character.
While the production is A-team all over—a gleaming David Rockwell set, spiffy
William Ivey Long costumes, luscious Donald Holder lighting—nothing stands out,
and Brian Ronan’s sound design, as is becoming the regrettable standard on
Broadway, is so loud that it robs us of what are probably some worth-hearing
Yazbek lyrics. Denis Jones’s choreography is skimpy for a big musical comedy.
Horn provides a pianissimo curtain, with Michael and Julie coming to terms on a
bench; quiet fadeouts are fine if you’re Kismet
or The Fantasticks,
but one expects more brio from a big, brash property like this.
But if you want a lively, fun night out, you’ll get it, along with
the reassuring thought that, with Tootsie,
The Prom, and
the better moments of Be
musical comedy is alive and well. And welcome, Mr. Fontana, at last, to the A
List. With this surely exhausting, likely Tony-winning, turn—navigating between
baritone and falsetto, making countless swaps from shirt and trousers to bra
and girdle, providing an often unlikable hero with all the leading-man charm it
requires—you’ve earned it.
At the Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street, Manhattan.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.
For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.