Theater Review: ‘Tootsie’

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By Elyse Trevers

Could Santino Fontana, the star of the Broadway musical “Tootsie,” be nominated for two awards, Best Actress in a musical and Best Actor in a musical?  He has a dual role in a show this season, portraying both Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor, and Dorothy Michaels, a ‘seasoned’ actress, and he sings well in each role

Adroitly directed by Scott Ellis, “Tootsie” is the musical version of the 1982 Larry Gelbart movie that starred Dustin Hoffman. Fontana plays Dorsey, an annoying, argumentative, 40-something actor, who talks himself out of roles. Dorsey creates many of his own problems by constantly challenging directors and, consequently, can’t get a job anymore. Yet he is passionate about acting and refuses to give up.

He runs lines with Sandy, his ex-wife (adorably neurotic Sarah Stiles) who is auditioning for the role of the nurse in the new musical “Juliet’s Curse,” a Romeo and Juliet sequel. In desperation, he dons a dress, glasses, wig and padded bra and goes to audition for the same part calling himself Dorothy Michaels. The sleazy, pompous director Ron Carlise (funny Reg Rogers) wants someone younger and prettier and is so patronizing that he doesn’t remember her name. Instead he refers to Dorothy as “Sweetie and Tootsie.” The show’s producer, an older woman (Julie Halston) hires Dorothy instead.

Dorsey is thrilled that he’s landed the role but typically begins to find fault with the play. Yet ironically, in his disguise, he is able to effect change and influence people.

In the movie version, Dorothy’s role was in a soap opera. Here, it is in a satire of a musical, providing a venue for the music and clever lyrics (rhyming ‘see ya with Scalia” ) of David Yazbek (“The Full Monty”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “The Band’s Visit”) and Robert Horn’s smart book packed with clever one-liners. Denis Jones’ choreography is whimsical and funny, especially when Carlisle is teaching the cast and instructing them with descriptive phrases, not dance terms. (“bounce bounce bounce bounce, Fosse arm, Fosse arm, restless leg.”) The show changes from “Juliet’s Curse” where Craig, Romeo’s brother, finds Juliet alive and falls in love with her to “Juliet’s Nurse,” where suddenly the nurse (now played by Dorothy) finds romance.

Predictably Michael falls in love with Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper) who plays Juliet. The two bond as friends, which, of course, causes problems for Dorsey who is attracted to Julie. Cooper has a lovely voice but is the non-quirky one in a musical filled with kooky off-beat characters. Unfortunately, despite her talent, she gets lost in the shuffle and her songs, which are often ballads, slow the show down.

The audience roots for Dorsey because Fontana is likeable and extremely talented. How does he hit those notes? (Overheard in the theater- “he’s as good at being Dorothy as he is at being Michael.”) Fontana, a fan favorite from television’s “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” has paid his dues; he appeared as Topher in the remake of Cinderella, and Hans in the movie “Frozen” and other shows. “Tootsie” may prove to be his breakout role (or is it roles?) He’s already received the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical and has been nominated for the Tony.

Stiles is hysterical as the hopeful neurotic hyper ex-wife. She sings faster and faster, almost breathlessly as the music speeds up. Dorsey’s roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) is a wannabe writer, who doesn’t write. Laughingly, he offers witty running commentary and is Michael’s conscience and sounding board.  John Behlmann is hilarious as Max Van Horn, the egotistical actor who falls for Dorothy. He is a muscled young buffoon who shows off his abs and keeps beating his chest.

Although Michael claims to have learned a lot about the way women are treated, the Broadway show doesn’t spend much time on the inequalities between the sexes. In a recent television interview, Fontana said of Dorsey, “He starts with a con and ends with a conscience.” However, the audience doesn’t really see what changes him. There are other small plot issues that don’t make sense, but none of that seems to matter to the laughing audience at the Marquis Theatre. “Tootsie” is one of the funniest new shows this season and has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards. Maybe we should all embrace our feminine side. Buy your tickets soon and have fun, Sweetie.

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