By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV, Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
To movie lovers around the world, Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of Michael Dorsey pretending to be woman soap opera star Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie” was a magical vehicle in 1982. It may well have ushered in some of the first acknowledgments of sexual harassment and unfair differences in the acting workplace for women that resonate today with the #metoo movement (and which, ironically, resulted in accusations aimed at Hoffman too).
Nevertheless, the journey of ubertalented Michael Dorsey from a cocksure, committed, but out-of-work actor into a self-assured actress fighting for “her” career was hysterical, but never farcical. Hoffman found a breathy voice with a delicate Southern accent to bring forth the unforgettable Dorothy Michaels, but in many ways Hoffman had the easier time with bringing his Dorothy to fruition than does Santino Fontana, who is the titular lead role in the musical based on the film currently playing at the Marquis Theatre.
The reason is that Fontana must not only don feminine apparel and comport as a woman. He must sing like one and be convincing in the role that he is not a man passing as a woman, even though we all clearly know this. Were Fontana to break the fourth wall or to find a falsetto note in place of the genuine article, the illusion would be lost and we would be looking at a mere impersonation rather than one of the finest feats of acting and singing Broadway has ever seen.
The last time such a nifty trick was accomplished – only in reverse – was when Julie Andrews assumed the Broadway title role based on her performance on the big screen in “Victor/Victoria.” Andrews, who played a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, declined the lone nomination for a Tony Award, choosing to side with her overlooked cast members.
Like Andrews in 1995, Fontana was rightfully nominated for a Tony Award in a leading role in this year’s musical. This time, though, his musical has plenty of company and acknowledgment because David Yazbek and Robert Horn were nominated for Best Score and Best Book awards, respectively. Among the other eight Tony Award nominees are his co-star Lilli Cooper as Best Actress, featured performers Sarah Stiles and Andy Grotelueschen as well as nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Direction, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.
Yet, none of this would work if Fontana did not have the demeanor, charm and scintillating voice of a woman when he is wearing a dress coupled with the brassy and bold register of a leading man when performing as a cisgender. Fontana has found that sweet spot in his vocal register where he can belt like a woman as Dorothy Michaels, but not sound like a man. Yet, when he is singing as Michael Dorsey and playing against other cast members, he is clearly in possession of one of the warmest of male voices.
Horn’s book has updated the original premise and set Dorothy Michaels in a new musical titled Juliet’s Curse, a continuation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Michael Dorsey’s attempt to hijack a woman’s role at a time when women are still striving to achieve equality is addressed by his friend Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) early in the work. Not only is it not politically correct, he points out, but it is clearly depriving an otherwise talented woman from achieving the role. Dorsey is not impressed; he is obsessed.
It is Dorsey’s hubris as an actor that carries him in his quest to become the very best Broadway musical actress and to do so without a misstep. From the first time Fontana assumes the persona of Dorothy in the song “I Won’t Let You Down,” he is completely believable and convincing. Yazbek’s compositions provide several challenges for Fontana, but the marvelous direction by Scott Ellis and superb misdirection by choreographer Denis Jones when Fontana is transforming into Dorothy make Tootsie a must-see experience.
Horn, who is a graduate from TV scriptwriting (“Designing Women”), has penned a taut and funny script with more than enough laughs for Fontana and fellow cast members. When, as Dorothy, Fontana begins to fall for his musical within a musical co-star (Cooper), he naturally finds himself both attracted and conflicted. In fact, much to Dorsey’s chagrin, Dorothy Michaels becomes his biggest romantic rival.
While Dorsey’s ex-girlfriend Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles), is completely clueless as to who has once again taken a dream role away from her, his slovenly, would-be playwright roommate Jeff (Grotelueschen) is clued into the ruse from its inception. Horn’s over-the-top role for Stiles in rich in humor and when coupled with Yazbek’s playful verses and fast-paced music in “What’s Gonna Happen” (he did write Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, after all), the results are absolutely hilarious.
Grotelueschen has his comedic moments too, especially in Act Two’s duet with Fontana in “Jeff Sums it Up” and the reprise of Act One’s “Whaddya Do,” a song first sung solo by Fontana as Michael and later as Dorothy.
Reg Rogers as Ron Carlisle, the overwrought director of the imagined musical, gives another remarkably funny role in Tootsie. Playing the macho role originally seen on film by Dabney Coleman, Rogers plays an insufferable director with highly dubious choreography moves. He is turned on by Dorothy’s rebukes to his authority and, naturally, takes a fancy to her.
John Behlmann, as movie star and Juliet’s Curse musical leading man Max Van Horn, also summons forth more than his share of laughs as he pursues Dorothy in a most uncomfortable, creepy and stalking manner. The lengths he goes to prove his attraction are comedic fodder, while Julie Halston is also noteworthy in her role as producer Rita Marshall.
Act One’s powerful closer “Unstoppable” with its haunting refrain, soaring crescendos and big dance breaks seems somewhat like a modern version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Fontana begins the song as Michael and makes a rapid transformation into Dorothy. Even those expecting to see the transition are impressed with the split-second timing for the feat with n’er a sequin missing or a wig out of place.
Cooper’s role as Michael-Dorothy’s love interest Julie Nichols has to be played with dexterity, lest she be perceived as a woman naturally drawn to other women. She plays the role with angst as she finds herself falling for Dorothy, although not aware that Michael’s pheromones might be at play.
While Yazbek’s music is quite palatable, it is a far cry from last year’s intimate offering in The Band’s Visit. Simon Hale is Tony-nominated for the musical’s orchestrations and Andrea Grody serves as the music director and supervises the music along with Dean Sharenow, who also serves as the music coordinator. This is a very big Broadway production and its show within a show premise requires little time to stand still as Yazbek’s Tony Award-winning work was last year.
Even though the material has been uplifted and made current, there are times when it seems dated and, though the point is addressed early on, there are no times today where a man should ever be encouraged or allowed to keep qualified women out of work to soothe his artist’s temperament and oversized ego.
Even though Fontana’s character is at first an egotistical, self-centered narcissus, he does learn to grow as a man by becoming a woman. Fontana’s role, as directed by Ellis, is endearing, even though we may not especially like what he may be doing. In this case, it’s not what he is doing, but how he is carrying it off that leaves audience members spellbound and attracted to him.
While the awards ceremony still beckons, Fontana seems destined to win his first Tony Award for this role. May the best man – and woman – win.
Tootsie, based on the Columbia Pictures film starring Dustin Hoffman and its screenplay by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart of the same title, stars Santino Fontana and is directed by Scott Ellis. It continues its open Broadway run at the Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St., in New York City, with a running time of two hours and 35 minutes. For tickets click here.