There’s only way that Santino Fontana comes up short in TOOTSIE.
He’s too tall.
Fontana’s almost six feet, an atypical height for a woman – or at least an actor who pretends to be a woman.
You’ll recall from the famed 1982 film that Michael Dorsey has a reputation as a difficult actor; thus, he must reinvent himself as an actress. Doing so also gives him a whole new panoply of roles for which he can audition — and some insight on how women are treated and mistreated.
In the film, Dustin Hoffman’s lack of height helped him to be a convincing Dorothy Michaels. But Hoffman came up short in a different way: Dorothy had a too-high pitched and thus unbelievable chirpy voice.
Try to find a woman who sounds as Hoffman does.
Fontana’s feminine sound is far more convincing — as are his legs in the few times that Denis Jones’ effective choreography allows us to see them. He also flutters his hands as a woman would. For much of the first act, he has a most winning smile – one that makes you glad he’s winning.
Michael/Dorothy has to lose that smile and get into trouble or there’d be no Act Two. TOOTSIE has one that’s almost as good as the first – thanks to librettist Robert Horn.
Unlike so many lazy bookwriters (you know who you are), Horn hasn’t just purloined the screenplay’s most every scene and line and merely eliminated a few to make room for David Yazbeck’s songs. He’s changed a number of plot points; eliminated two seemingly important characters (Julie has no child or dad, and we don’t miss them) and reconceived another character to give the plot a more believable thrust.
Horn has also come up with dozens upon dozens of brand-new lines, most of which are genuinely LOL-funny: “I just don’t think a therapist should say ‘Wow!’ that many times during a first session” … “You are an open bar of emotion” … “I avoid people who have seen me naked while trying to find new people to see me naked.”
Those last two come courtesy of Andy Grotelueschen, who’s fine at walking the line between being Michael’s best bud and enjoying some schadenfreude at his expense.
Horn gets off to a strong start by showing us how temperamentally difficult Michael can be; original screenwriters Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and three uncredited script doctors pretty much only told us. So after an opening scene with a surprise that won’t be spoiled here, Michael locks horns with Ron Carlisle, the director who’d cast him in this new musical (and ego-centrically played by Reg Rogers).
Actors would say that Michael’s argument is a good one. So when his agent (the woefully underused Michael McGuire) castigates him for arguing with a director about his role as a tomato in a TV commercial, Fontana says “Nobody does vegetables like me!” with such sincerity and lack of guile. You feel for this actor who’s really serious about his craft.
That scene might sound familiar, for it’s in the film. Very little else is.
For one thing, with soap operas an almost-thing of the past, now Michael/Dorothy hopes to land a part in a Great Big Broadway Show.
Hence, he’ll try out for the Nurse in the new musical version of those two gentle kids from Verona: JULIET’S CURSE.
Instead of having two older men lust for Dorothy, Horn limits the field to young Max, a just-starting-out and not-very-good performer. He comes to appreciate Dorothy because she makes him a better actor. Max (an amusing John Behlmann) then makes more of a commitment than many love-struck men would ever dare; it’s a pretty hilarious one to boot.
Horn also knows enough to keep his (writer’s) mouth shut. In one scene, he has close to a minute of complete silence where Michael and Jeff just stand and wait for the inevitable to happen. And it does, but only after that silence gets a titanic laugh.
And yet, this moment depends on Michael and Jeff keeping their front door unlocked. Does anyone in a New York apartment do that? Horn (and director Scott Ellis, who’s otherwise done very well) seems to think so, for more than once someone just walks in.
Much more fun is had, though, when characters speak. When Michael’s girlfriend Sandy is auditioning, she gives a very funny response to the director’s dismissive “Thank you” that many behind the casting table will be hearing from now on. Horn has also added a more realistic ending than the film had.
Lest we forget that TOOTSIE has always had a great deal to say about male-female relations, Horn has kept the important ingredients from the film. He’s also been careful to add updates that acknowledge the advances we’ve made in female rights in the subsequent 37 years.
The overture reveals that Yazbeck’s music swings and the songs display a post-modern Jerry Bock sound. His lyrics possess what is known in the trade as Signature – meaning that you can tell from the style of the writing who’s created the work. That doesn’t mean that Yazbeck skimps on character; he most certainly doesn’t. Sandy, worrying about the men who’ll audition her, sings “They’ll all say ‘It’s good to see ya,’ but all I’ll see are judges and they’ll all look like Scalia.”
Musical theater tradition tells writers to avoid having one person sing while another one just stands on stage and watches. Here both Michael and Jeff must merely observe Sandy’s tale of woe, and yet Sarah Stiles’ expert lickety-split rendition of this difficult patter song will have you centering your eyes on her and not the men.
The fetching Lilli Cooper plays Julie Nichols with honest simplicity. She has a love song that may well be unique in the annals of musical theater history. She tells about the time she came home and “everything in the left of the closet was gone,” for John had left her. Why? That’s what you should hear without any further hint. Despite Yazbeck’s plaintive melody, his lyric and idea for the song may well be one you’ve never, ever encountered.
Some strange oversights may rankle the musical theater enthusiast who knows more than a bit about Broadway. Once Dorothy is hired to play Nurse, she’s thrown into the number with no preparation while all the others have been already directed and choreographed. Hard to believe that producer Rita Marshall (the ever effervescent Julie Halston) would be so impressed with Dorothy’s performance that she’d make her the main character and change the title of the show to JULIET’S NURSE. And would a rank amateur whose name means nothing to the public be placed above the title?
The vast majority of TOOTSIE theatergoers – and there may be
close to half-million by year’s end – won’t mind, especially if Fontana stays with it. The complaint that he’s too tall doesn’t negate the fact that he stands tall in every other area of the show down to dancing in high heels.
Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal were the screenwriters of record; the musical doesn’t credit Schisgal at all, but gives Don McGuire a co-story credit with Gelbart. But have you ever seen THIS credit in a list of Playbill bios?
DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Underlying Rights).
Well, if Hoffman had the power to giveth or taketh away, let’s be glad and grateful that he green-lit the musical.