REVIEW: ‘Tootsie’ is Amusing Covid Relief Comedy

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester and Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey in the National Tour of TOOTSIE. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

As an cinephile and originally a film critic, Tootsie holds a special place in my personal collection of films.

The sparkling new musical based on the 1982 hit comedy starring Dustin Hoffman (and a Who’s Who in Hollywood) – as a New York actor with a reputation for “being difficult” who becomes the toast of daytime TV and America…in drag – doesn’t maintain all of the charm of the original source material, but “Tootsie” (now playing at the Peace Center in its first national tour) – does spring forth a most amusing affair with pleasantries, twists and delights. And one we desperately need in this time of Covid fatigue with other Broadway shows and local productions under constant threat of shutting down.

While the concept and most of the main characters remain intact in Robert Horn’s Tony-winning adaption, the setting has been swapped from a soap opera’s Southwest General Hospital to a Broadway musical called Juliet’s Nurse, and starring as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michael, the affable Drew Becker, who delivers a rousing portrayal of ingenuity and redemption.

The primary dilemma of updating this setup as old as time – from Shakespeare and Some Like It Hot to Bosom Buddies and currently on Covid hiatus the Mrs. Doubtfire musical – is the modern paradigm of drag as the non-plus norm, today’s shift to more fluid gender identity, and the political incorrectness of such a betrayal. And of course, the #MeToo movement.

Horn confronts this head-on and early on with a speech by Bill Murray’s playwright/roommate character Jeff Slater who nails it on the head after Michael reveals his scheme: “You know you’ll have to take a pay cut (to play a woman).”

Jeff, played here by Jared David Michael Grant (blessed with a Kenan Thompson-like flair for utilizing his entire body for physical comedy and working an audience), is the voice of reason and political correctness, but also more of a stoner and less motivated in the musical, though not necessarily less interesting. Whereas the play is the thing in this film version whereas they are constantly revising and rehearsing Jeff’s play script, there is no actual play in the musical…until the end.

The love interest and co-star Julie (an Oscar-winning role for Jessica Lange) is played by Ashley Alexandra, a true talent and belter (“Gone, Gone, Gone”). Both of the leads are terrific in their own rights, but romantic chemistry, not so much.

Sandy Lester – the friend/student/girlfriend (the wonderful Teri Garr in the movie) gets the super neurotic treatment here in the form of the delightful bundle of energy Payton Reilly, who helms her own high-octane patter song (“What’s Gonna Happen” with two reprises) to elaborate on her life of neurosis and irony, although many of the hysterical lyrics were difficult to decipher on opening night.

The plot has further been simplified by dropping some of the mistaken gender identity gags: Julie’s father (who asks for Dorothy’s hand in marriage in the film) is completely out of the picture and Julie has no child.

The director and choreographer Ron Carlisle (a slimy Dabney Coleman in the film) is not romantically involved with Julie in the musical and has been stripped of much his abusive misogyny. Portrayed by the hilarious Adam Du Plessis, Ron is simply an arrogant, sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical bigot, and not a serious threat to the proceedings.

John Van Horn (the nitwit veteran soap actor glued to the teleprompter in the film) is now young ingenue reality star Max Van Horn, (the handsome Lukas James Miller) who serenades Dorothy from the sidewalk and has a tattoo of her on his oft-seen chest.

Michael’s agent Stan Fields (the incredible Sydney Pollack in the original) also gets less stage time and is portrayed by Steve Brustien.

The producer Rita Marshall has been elevated here and given a backstory. She is played with confidence and dignity by the likable Kathy Halenda dressed in a stunning white sparkly number and gorgeous white/silver wig creation. Though there is a brief womanhood kinship with Rita and other cast members, Dorothy’s appeal to women and feminists isn’t front and center here as it was when the film premiered during the women’s movement second wave as in works like 9 to 5.

The comedy of errors has been trimmed but there are some shining examples of brilliance such as in the scene with Sandy’s surprise visit and Michael and Jeff’s struggle to stall her outside their apartment and clear any evidence of Dorothy in the apartment.

One major improvement in Tootsie is the music. While “It Might Be You” and “Tootsie” (with its electro-reggae beat) could have been updated for this show, most of the score from the film is severely dated and tied to 1980s adult contemporary vibe.

In fact, Tootsie boasts one of the finest, mood-setting overtures of recent memory with powerful, dynamic, dance-able music with trumpets, a trombone, reeds and even a flugelhorn.

With music and lyrics by Tony-winning composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Band’s Visit), Tootsie has an old-fashioned quality but with dashes of modern sounds.

And the creative team behind this adaptation all but guaranteed a successful run: Tony-winning lighting designer for The Lion King and more, Donald Holder; Broadway choreography by Denis Jones; original scenic designer David Rockwell’s folding triptych set pieces (remember his Tony-winning set for She Loves Me?) and New York skylines (tour scenic designer Christine Peters).

Not to mention the quick changes and costume reveals created by the great William Ivey Long, reminiscent of his handiwork in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

Broadway Director Scott Ellis (nominated for nine Tony’s for direction, most recently the 2016 revival of She Loves Me) speeds the show along at a brisk pace and packs in all of the gags he can. Tour director is Dave Solomon (Broadway associate director).

Tootsie continues through Sunday, January 9 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. Tickets are available now at peacecenter.org or by calling (864) 467-3000.

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