Payton Reilly (left) and Drew Becker in "Tootsie." Photo by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy.Made
The problem with “Tootsie” the comedy musical is the same problem with “Tootsie” the film, on which it is based: It’s a one-joke story. A guy dressed up like a woman.
Maybe that’s oversimplifying. After all, the 1982 motion picture starring Dustin Hoffman won a whopping 10 Academy Awards including one for Best Picture. Not that winning an Oscar automatically equates with artistic achievement, but the movie was entertaining with a cast that included Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray and Teri Garr.
So why not make a musical version of “Tootsie” for the theater? That’s what Robert Horn (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) did, with a show that premiered in Broadway in 2018.
That show is making its San Diego premiere at the Civic Theatre downtown in a national touring production presented by Broadway San Diego. It stars Drew Becker in Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels part with Ashley Alexandra, Jared David Michael Grant and Payton Reilly in Lange’s, Murray’s and Garr’s roles respectively. I’ve got more to say on Reilly, who is super, in a bit.
The premise of the musical “Tootsie,” written originally for the screen by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, is the same: A perpetually out of work actor with major personality problems becomes desperate enough (and defiant enough) to audition in drag for a woman’s part, and he gets it. He nails it. He becomes a sensation. In the film, the role is for a daytime soap opera titled “Southwest General.” In the musical, it’s the part of The Nurse in a terrible theatrical “sequel” to “Romeo and Juliet.”
To complicate the gender-bending deceit, Michael falls for the play’s Juliet, actress Julie Nichols (Alexandra). This almost automatically becomes the musical’s principal conflict: not whether Michael can keep up his deception indefinitely without being found out, but whether he can win his lady love.
Like the movie, “Tootsie” the musical seems unbelievable all the way through in spite of its laughs and strong performances. In this touring production, Dexter looks more like Mrs. Doubtfire than an actual woman, but then I didn’t buy Hoffman in dress, wig and jewelry either.
More troubling for the musical, it spans more than two and a half hours, milking its sight gags and over-relying on shtick like actor Max Van Horn’s (Lukas James Miller) shouting, wild-eyed antics, especially when he turns into Dorothy’s suitor, and Adam du Plessis as a loutish, conceited director/choreographer. At the very least 20 minutes could have been cut from this show with nothing lost.
Musically, “Tootsie” bounces along on the strength of Yazbek’s consistently clever lyrics, the catchiest of which recount the plight of aspiring actors everywhere. That brings us to supporting player Payton Reilly’s “What’s Gonna Happen,” a neurotic solo performed at warp speed that she brings off so impressively that you wish the entire show was hers.
As recently seen and heard in Broadway San Diego’s presentation of “The Band’s Visit” at the Civic, Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics for that show, has a way with ballads. “Tootsie” includes a couple of note: the recurring “Who Are You?” and “I Won’t Let You Down,” which is Dorothy’s solo in the farcical play-within-a-play.
What “Tootsie” on stage brings to the fore that the film naturally does not is its buoyant choreography (by Denis Jones). The dance sequences are serviceable but at times imaginative.
Drew Becker has the formidable task of occupying a role forever identified with Dustin Hoffman. He’s a capable singer and deft with reaction moments – there’s a lot of them in “Tootsie” – and at his best his Dorothy makes us forget completely that there is a Michael. When he is Michael, however, he doesn’t inspire much rooting for. His contrition over what he’s done, expressed to Julie near the end of the show, comes off as just another acting job.
Forty years after the film, this “Tootsie” gets a few moments of updated enlightenment about gender and about women in particular. Constantly underestimated and hit upon while as Dorothy, Michael Dorsey learns that it’s not easy to be a woman – especially when you’re a man.
“Tootsie” runs through April 17 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
The rockin' cast of "Million Dollar Quartet." Photo by Ken Jacques
If you’re not sweating even a little after a performance of “Million Dollar Quartet,” then you weren’t paying attention. Unless you’re one of those prigs referenced in the show who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is the devil, you were at the very least tapping your feet during this popular jukebox musical about a fabled Sun Records gathering of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis back in 1956.
It’s a shame you can’t get up and dance in the audience at Lamb’s Players Theatre, which is returning to live performances post-pandemic with Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s “Million Dollar Quartet.” So you sit there and move as much as is logistically and socially permissible, wishing in vain that there was a dance floor.
That’s one of the few built-in conundrums of this show: the performance of its rollicking tunes, be they “Hound Dog,” “Great Balls Of Fire” or “Who Do You Love,” cannot be fully appreciated sitting down.
Anyway, for “Million Dollar Quartet” to work it absolutely requires cast members who a.) can not only sing but sound reasonably like the legend being portrayed; b.) can play guitar or piano not just at all but well; and c.) can act.
After all, this is theater.
Lamb’s suceeds. The Coronado-based company previously staged “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Avo Playhouse in Vista three years ago. Its cast returns almost intact in this remounted production, the only change being Michael Louis Cusimano taking over from Walker Brinskele as Elvis. The returnees are Brett Benowitz as Perkins, Charles Evans Jr. as Cash and Ben Van Diepen as Lewis. (Onstage accompaniment comes from Mackenzie Leighton on upright bass and Brian Dall on drums.)
Now, back to those requirements. All these guys can play their instruments, with electric guitarist Benowitz the standout. Carl Perkins himself would be grinning. The most recognizable voices among Sun Records boss Sam Phillips’ discoveries are Presley’s and Cash’s. Cusimano can move like Elvis, but doesn’t sound much like him. Evans, on the other hand, moves and sounds (which is not easy) like the great Johnny Cash. He garnered a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle award for his JC portrayal at the Avo, and it’s easy to see why.
Everybody at Lamb’s can sell his part, with the manic Van Diepen a crowd-pleasing Jerry Lee Lewis.
As at the Avo, Lance Arthur Smith returns as Sam Phillips, a role essentially swamped by all the music and big personalities in his midst. “Million Dollar Quartet” also includes the completely desultory presence of Dyanne, a gal pal of Elvis’ who comes with him to the Sun studio and is even given two songs: the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” and Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King’s “I Hear You Knocking.” Katie Sapper is fine at Lamb’s, but the subtraction of this character’s numbers would shorten the intermission-less “Million Dollar Quartet” a good 10 minutes.
The story of this Sun Records recording session is pretty well known and the stage musical telling builds in a few mini-dramas, principally around the awkwardness of Phillips’ stars having gone on to (in the case of Elvis) or about to go on to (Cash, Perkins) bigger and better things. Accounts of the actual event don’t reference such tensions. They do report that most of the music played on that Dec. 4 were gospel songs. A few of them are in “Million Dollar Quartet," but predominantly the score is comprised of rousing rock favorites: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Which brings us back to trying to sit still during the performance.
It ain’t easy.
"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through June 12 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.
Richard Baird (with Amanda Schaar in background) in "An Iliad." Photo by Aaron Rumley
It’s tragic that “An Iliad,” an indictment of all wars told through the prism of the Trojan War, is still so damned relevant, so agonizingly current 10 years almost to the date of its first-ever performance.
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, Ukraine is name-dropped, the invasion by Russia and ensuing war being just the latest in a terrifying world history of wars. The list of bloody conflicts is long, and its breathless, passionate recital by Richard Baird as The Poet in the NCR production is when “An Iliad” feels like punch after punch to the breadbasket.
I’ve seen the play a couple of times before, its having been staged by La Jolla Playhouse in 2012 and five years later by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. I’ve never swooned over it the way some critics have. It can be as exhausting for the audience as it is for the actor onstage.
It might have been the timing, concurrent with the bloodshed in Ukraine, that magnetized me this time around. It might have been Baird’s no-holds-barred performance, a mix of oratory, explosiveness and nuance. Whatever the reason, this staging of “An Iliad” directed by David Ellenstein is urgent theater.
“An Iliad” is, of course, an adaptation of Homer’s epic account of the Trojan War. It’s populated by familiar figures such as opposing warriors Achilles and Hector, Helen of Troy, Agamenmon the king, and both Greek gods and goddesses. Over an hour and a half, the Poet (Baird) portrays these and more, interspersing the events of the decade-long Trojan War with more contemporary warfare references.
The imagery of “An Iliad,” particularly in its recounting of battle scenes and Achilles’ confrontation with Hector, is graphic and brutal. As it should be. War is graphic and brutal.
The other presence in the play is an accompanying cellist, performing behind a scrim. At North Coast Rep that’s Amanda Schaar. The strafing of notes echoes the flailing of swords.
In this play, the demands on the actor’s endurance, physicality and powers of memorization are prodigious. Baird accepts the challenge and, like Achilles, proceeds full force. Perhaps it’s good this is a limited-run engagement (through April 10). Performances like Baird’s would seem to require major recovery time. That speaks highly of his commitment to the production and the role.
I wish an end to the war in Ukraine.
I wish an end to the list in “An Iliad.”
"An Iliad" runs through April 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.