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.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.