By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is an obvious conversation addressed early in Tootsie, the David Yazbek musical that won Santino Fontana a Leading Actor in a Musical Tony Award in 2019. In the book by Robert Horn that won him the other Tony Award for that show, the question about a man dressing as a woman to deprive an otherwise eligible actress for a role would seem to set women’s liberation decidedly back several decades.
“But I got the role!” Michael Dorsey protests as an act of defiance to political correctness. Despite what others might argue, he really does possess the acting chops to make others believe he is Dorothy Michaels and, after all, isn’t this suspension of reality what defines the greatest of actors? It is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but as we know from having watched the 1982 Dustin Hoffman rom com on which the musical is based, it is destined to come apart at the hinges.
Broadway has had an almost unexplainable infatuation with straight men dressing up as women as a comic device for decades. There was Where’s Charley? (based on the comedy Charley’s Aunt) and somewhere in the mass of ostrich feathers and sequins found in Jerry Herman’s Le Cage aux Folles, there is the obligatory scene of the girl’s straight-laced father attempting to escape by donning a gown and passing as a woman. Based on Billy Wilder’s film “Some Like It Hot,” Sugar enjoyed limited success with the likes of Robert Morse and Tony Roberts, but a new version by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is in process. Meanwhile, Mrs. Doubtfire starring Rob McClure opens at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in less than a month.
Produced by Troika Entertainment, the national tour of Tootsie, an improbable tale originally scheduled to arrive in New Orleans in 2020, finally arrived this week, kicking off the Hancock/Whitney Bank’s “Broadway Across New Orleans” series and gave local audiences its first national tour since the COVID lockdowns.
In the role of Michael Dorsey is Drew Becker, a talented selection to headline the production. Becker has the exuberance needed to carry off the part of the maniacal actor with authority and utilizes the placement of his strong middle voice as that of Dorothy Michaels. As Fontana did with the role on Broadway, Becker does not employ a falsetto or male soprano, as some might wrongfully expect.
In songs like “I Won’t Let You Down” and “Unstoppable,” Becker impresses and correctly takes on the demeanor of a crusading, emancipated woman as Dorothy. Michaels will not stand for any man, or woman, dictating to her the way in which she will play her stock and trade as an actress. But as strong and confident as Dorothy is, her real life alter ego of Michael finds that winning the role of his life has complications.
The biggest complication is, of course, his attraction to leading lady Julie Nichols, played by Ashley Alexandra. Alexandra’s voice takes a while to warm up, but she does justice to Yazbek’s haunting ballad “There Was John” and then in duet as Julie and Michael begin to express feelings of connectivity in “Who Are You?”
If there’s one thing Horn’s book does deliver, it’s tightly and smartly written laughs. Michael’s roommate Jeff Slater (Jared David Michael Grant) revels in seeing how bad things can get in Act Two’s snarky “Jeff Sums It Up,” but when he’s not dancing across the Saenger stage derisively, he manages to get lots of laughs with wonderfully timed…wait for it…comedy. In fact, some of the funniest moments are reactions between the two in which absolutely nothing is said.
The frenetic portrayal of Michael’s ex-girlfriend Sandy Lester by Payton Reilly is also a delight in the show and her self-destructive, co-dependent behavior is expressed best in her solo number “What’s Gonna Happen.” Reprised throughout the work, it is her very own leitmotif of negativity.
Lukas James Miller plays conceited leading man Max Van Horn, who is unnerved by Dorothy’s domineering nature. Van Horn’s biggest acting plaudits occur when he loses his shirt and his Neanderthal nature is shaken by the pushback he receives at the hands or, perhaps more accurately, the skirt of Dorothy Michaels. This causes him to consider an unwise dark path of discovery that has more than its share of laughs too.
The supporting ensemble of players are used throughout the work to establish the New York City background and more specifically the process in which a Broadway show is constructed. Self-absorbed director Ron Carlisle (Adam Du Plessis) more than meets his match with Dorothy Michaels, although he has little trouble running roughshod over Michael Dorsey early in the show. Apparently, “tough broads” like producer Rita Marshall (Kathy Halenda) and Dorothy Michaels are his Waterloo.
The original Broadway choreography by Denis Jones and overall direction by Dave Solomon is at the heart of this production, establishing the musical “Juliet’s Curse,” in which Dorothy is cast as a nurse. From the opening, the action is effectively expressed in song and dance and reaches a critical crescendo on opening night in Act Two’s “The Most Important Night of My Life” with brilliant costumes by Tony Award winning designer William Ivey Long.
The role of Michael Dorsey/Dorsey Michaels is critical to an overall enjoyment of this musical. Like the character he portrays, Becker is a solid actor who can pull off this important work while in pants or in drag. Indeed, his self-absorbed and self-important actions as Michael give way to expressions of love and generosity by Dorothy, which ultimately provide the fodder for this musical comedy.
Yazbek’s music and lyrics famously found voices for men in The Full Monty and for women in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. With his Tony Award winning score for The Band’s Visit, he continued to prove his talent at writing deeply introspective pieces for both genders. Tootsie continues this amazing track record and music director Andrew David Sotomayor, music supervisor Dean Sharenow, orchestrator Simon Hale and vocal arranger and supervising music director Andrea Grody all deserve kudos in giving Yazbek’s music and lyrics ample opportunity to be showcased.
Tootsie continues its national tour at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street, now through Sunday, November 14. Tickets are available through TicketMaster or at the Saenger Theater Box Office. For more information, call 504-525-1052.