Dustin Hoffman starred in a movie about an irascible, difficult, bossy actor who learns to be diplomatic by impersonating a woman. In the Broadway musical “Tootsie,” which opened Tuesday at the Marquis Theatre, Santino Fontana plays a difficult, irascible, bossy actor who gets his way by impersonating a woman. In or out of a dress, this new struggling actor Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels is a diplomatic nightmare.
The good news is that book writer Robert Horn has not pulled a “Pretty Woman” and simply transcribed a screenplay, in this case, the Oscar-nominated 1982 script by Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and many uncredited writers. Equally good, Horn supplies a few one-liners that are every bit as funny as the movie’s zingers.
Fontana’s job is tougher than Hoffman’s. He also has to sing, and his powerful falsetto is a wry send-up of Ben Platt and Reeve Carney’s vocals in, respectively, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Hadestown.”
This “Tootsie” is also blessed with the awesome Broadway musical debut of Andy Grotelueschen. In the role of Dorsey’s roommate, Jeff, Grotelueschen matches Bill Murray’s rumpled comic persona from the movie and loses none of that casual insouciance when he projects that sidekick character out to a large audience. Fontana’s scenes with Grotelueschen are by far the musical’s sharpest, and a doorknob mishap at a critics’ preview provoked some impromptu banter that only highlighted what’s terrific about their easygoing onstage partnership. These two guys looked as though they could deliver a classic stand-up routine around those two errant doorknobs.
David Yazbek’s score here doesn’t match his work on Tony winner “The Band’s Visit,” but then there’s nothing subtle about “Tootsie,” which is only slightly less manic than the composer’s earlier musical adaptation “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” The patter songs are witty; “I Won’t Let You Down” is one of the few anthems in recent decades to bear repeating; and while “Opening Number” parodies bad Broadway showstoppers, it’s actually more listenable than most of the original songs from this season’s other new musicals.
Another plus is that my preview audience loved Sarah Stiles in the screechy Teri Garr role of the neurotic actress Sandy Lester. I found her screechy.
But the show’s problems really center on Michael Dorsey, both in and out of his Dorothy Michaels persona. In the movie, Hoffman’s character says, “I think Dorothy’s smarter than I am,” meaning she knows how to be passive-aggressive to get her way. She does what she wants in an acting scene and then apologizes to the director, even though it’s not really her fault.
Wearing a dress, the Michael Dorsey of the musical isn’t smarter — and he’s certainly not subtler. This Dorothy goes into a rehearsal room and is every bit as brazen as when he auditioned as a man. She not only completely revamps her own stage character but reconceives and redirects the whole show. (The TV soap opera of the film version is now a Broadway musical.) She even demands a complete overhaul of the costumes (by William Ivey Long) — for the entire cast! Oddly, “Tootsie” gives us a sneak peek at the coming cultural phenomenon, white female privilege.
That spectacular costume change, induced by Dorothy, falls flat. All the musical numbers that stem from this musical-within-a-musical don’t quite work, because it’s unclear what the show titled “Juliet’s Curse” is really about, besides being a takeoff on “Romeo and Juliet.” Under Dorothy’s guidance, the show is turned into “Juliet’s Nurse.” Dorothy plays the nurse, but other than that bit of casting news, I couldn’t tell you what was going on. Scott Ellis’ direction and Denis Jones’ choreography don’t make sense of it either, or infuse these scenes with any sense of fun. That’s one big hole in the middle of “Tootsie” the musical.
In Horn’s book, Dorsey’s love interest, Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange in the movie), is no longer having an affair with the director Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman in the movie). This book change strands the actors in two now-thankless roles. Lilli Cooper has a lovely singing voice, but leaves almost no other impression as Julie. And Reg Rogers goes the manic route to enliven his scenes as Ron Carlisle, most of which could be cut, and the strain shows.
Horn’s book is somewhat kinder to the aging soap opera roué (George Gaynes in the movie). That character is now a “Bachelor”-esque TV star making his Broadway debut, and John Behlmann has the abs for the job. In one needless change, the character is now named Max instead of John. C’mon, if you’re going to rename him, make it Rad or Colt or Jax.
One brief, brilliant moment in the new musical involves an audition of actresses. Two of them are Dorothy and Sandy, and another is a female singer (Katerina Papacostas) who overuses melisma. Frankly, Papacostas’s spot-on parody sounds like 80% of the singers on Broadway today. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one sick of this caterwauling in the theater.