Based on the 1982 film of the same name, “Tootsie” tells the story of Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker), a talented but overbearing actor who struggles to find work because of his hard-to-work-with attitude. With growing desperation, he decides to masquerade as a female and lands a highly coveted part in a new Broadway musical, “Juliet’s Curse.” Thanks to his alter ego Dororthy Michaels, he must learn to not only navigate the role of a lifetime, but also what it means to be a woman in modern society.
First and foremost, “Tootsie” is laugh-out-loud funny. With a book from Robert Horn, it’s almost a satirical take on theater, but manages to do so with a sort of grace that is clever and understated, rather than loud and in your face. Written as a sort of love letter, it accepts and embellishes the trials and tribulations of working in the world of theater. Hilarious choreography (Fosse, Fosse, tip the hat, take a selfie, POSE!), the plight of the out of work actor, stunt casting, and bad writing all intentionally have a place on director Dave Solomon’s stage in a musical that subtly admits how ridiculous the whole practice is. And yet, it still manages to keep the integrity of the traditional theatrical elements it’s so lovingly making fun of.
Playing both the leading man and the leading lady in the same production is no small feat, but Becker easily pulls it off while still maintaining the vocal integrity needed to carry his big belt number, “I Won’t Let You Down.” Dressed in drag, Becker is able to blend his high falsetto and rich deep notes without turning it into a farce, which was admittedly a concern of mine going into the performance. Instead, the production hits the idea that impersonating a woman is offensive head on, and tiptoes up to the line without actually crossing it as Michael is forced to see the harassment women face firsthand. As Becker easily shifts back and forth from fierce feminist to raging jerk, he manages to find a delicate balance of pushing the show’s underlying message of equality and not overselling the point.
In comparison to Michael’s attempts to get it together, his friend and ex-girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly) is a neurotic, chaotic, lovable mess. Full of theater-kid stereotypes in her number “What’s Gonna Happen,” Reilly mixes humor and controlled tone with hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss-them lyrics from music writer David Yazbek.
But as clever as the lyrics are, there’s something missing in Yazbek’s melodies. They aren’t inherently bad, but they aren’t memorable either. Ashley Alexandra plays Dorothy’s co-star and confidant Julie Nichols, but I truly could not tell you a single word she sings other than the title of her breakout song “Who Are You?” This is in no way a reflection on Alexandra, however, and her chemistry with Becker is unmatched as she proves herself to be her own force of feminist energy.
Of course, the production would not be complete without Lukas James Miller as dim-witted-but-hunky reality star Max Van Horn, Jared David Michael Grant as Michael’s snarky friend Jeff Slater (whose performance of “Jeff Sums It Up” might be worth the price of admission on it’s own), Steve Brustien as Michael's blunt talent agent Stan Fields, and Kathy Halenda as the glamorous, bedazzled producer Rita Marshall.
It is here that we must take a moment and acknowledge the brilliance that is costume designer William Ivey Long. The dresses worn by the production ensemble are sort of “Moulin Rouge!” meets “My Fair Lady” as the cast swirls around in shimmy jackets and sassy pink petticoats. When combined with choreography from Denis Jones, the effect is a must see spectacle.
All in all, the production is a triumph. With a light and delicate touch, the production is able to highlight important issues without sacrificing comedic (or ethical) integrity. If you see any show this year, let this be it.
“Tootsie” will run at The National Theatre through December 12, 2021 and has a run time of two hours and 35 minutes, including one fifteen minute intermission.
Tickets can be purchased here.
Parental guidance is suggested due to mature language.
All photo credit to Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.