Five Reasons Why Tootsie is Terrifically “Unstoppable”
By: Iris Wiener
April 28, 2019: It’s as sparkly as Tootsie’s iconic red dress and even funnier than Dustin Hoffman in that red dress; Broadway’s Tootsie is the rare film-to-theatre adaptation that improves upon what was already a revered original piece. The magnificently huge laughs that transpire at every performance of this musical are unlike any others; deep and guttural, they transcend those in other comedies. Replacing the film’s soap opera setting with that of a Broadway musical, the show feels accessible and timely, making it above and beyond crowd-pleasing.
Tootsie’s Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana) is a New York actor known for having a difficult demeanor, thus rendering himself unhirable. He decides to try his luck in drag, landing a role as soon as he begins donning a dress. What ensues is a riotous jab at backstage drama and delight as the satirical Juliet’s Nurse (the sequel to Romeo and Juliet),is staged in an uproarious fashion. With a deadpan playwright roommate (Andy Grotelueschen) and neurotic ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles) acting as foils for his persona, Michael transforms into Dorothy Michaels, a butch, Mrs. Doubtfire-like hotspur.
With so many reasons to see the 11-time Tony nominated musical, it is difficult to choose a mere five. Here is our best attempt:
1. To witness Santino Fontana as Michael/Dorothy is to get a master class in musical theatre. In his first number he belts, “You all go in / Well, I’m all in.” From the second he enters the stage his audience is in as well. Fontana’s penchant for interchangeable humor with heartfelt sentiment is brilliantly focused, and his comedic timing is only paralleled by his skill in heels. Check out Dorothy’s audition number, “I Won’t Let You Down,” in which he attempts to convince sleazy director/choreographer Ron (Reg Rogers) and moneybags producer Rita (Julie Halston) that he has what it takes for a role in their show. The song does double-duty, as Fontana also proves that he is going to raise the roof. We beg you to just try getting his uplifting Act I closer, the aptly titled “Unstoppable,” out of your head.
2. The film’s mildly sexist plot has been updated with great zeal and integrity. A number of questionable moments are immediately kept in check, whether it’s the fact that Michael can’t find success until he is a “female” standing up for his rights (as a woman it is applauded, but as a man, directors find him grating), or he is being reminded that as a woman he will be receiving a pay cut. Robert Horn’s book does the #MeToo and TimesUp movements proud.
3. David Yazbek’s snappy music and sensational lyrics are the best on the Broadway stage this season. Stiles’ amazing delivery of “What’s Gonna Happen,” a show-stopping frenetic rundown of negative thinking that paralyzes the best of anyone with fear (but especially actors), is ironically going to provide aspiring actors with an audition piece for years to come. Its mile-a-minute delivery is a whirlwind of phenomenal laughs. “I’m smart enough to know/That I’m too stupid to admit/You can’t survive a diet/That consists of eating shit,” she eschews, proving that anyone would be enamored with her skill and Yazbek’s wit. Lilli Cooper, who plays Julie, Dorsey’s love interest, gets to lead the intoxicatingly sultry “Down, Down, Down,” her deliciously haunting reaction to an act of betrayal. Grotelueschen’s star-making “Jeff Sums It Up” is an unforgettable dose of heightened sarcasm and one of Yazbek’s most hysterical numbers. Each song features a unique style with every one being a standout among standouts.
4. Coupled with Yazbek’s lyrics, book writer Robert Horn’s characterization of supporting characters is phenomenal. Every person in the show is immediately identifiable by their quirks, eccentricities and (mostly) endearing qualities. Reg Rogers’ acerbic Ron Carlisle epitomizes chauvinism and entitlement cartoonishly, while Halston’s Rita drips wisdom and wit with her wealth. The best of his characters is John Behlmann’s Max Van Horn, a reality TV star who is cast in Curse due to his topless physique. The character’s talent is all beneath his neck and lacking between his ears, allowing Behlmann to derive giggles and gut-busting laughs at every turn. (One of our favorite straight-faced one-liners: “It’s always about the journey, not the destination…unless you’re in an ambulance.”) It is horribly unjust for Behlmann to have been left off of the Tony ballot this year.
5. Look no further than Scott Ellis to find a director who can orchestrate a 30 second-ish pause in which his actors simply stare in mutually shocked contemplation…with the audience in hysterics for each and every second. (To describe the moment further would spoil it.) Fontana and Grotelueschen get much of the credit for carrying out this fantastic feat as well, but Scott Ellis’ set-up is magnificent. The only moment that tops it? The cracking of a door! (Michael McGrath as Dorsey’s fed-up agent doesn’t get enough stage time, but when his comic genius is utilized, it is to side-splitting perfection.) Ellis has devised cleverly entertaining, lengthy sequences that are markedly specific in their storytelling technique. See the progression of Dorothy and Juliet’s Curse as the latter soon becomes Juliet’s Nurse. The myriad examples of Ellis’s craft is the backbone of the verifiable treat that is Tootsie.
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