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Review: What's Gonna Happen is a Hilarious Time: TOOTSIE at the Hippodrome

What's Gonna Happen is a Hilarious Time

Review: What's Gonna Happen is a Hilarious Time: TOOTSIE at the Hippodrome

In the oft-repeated words of the character Sandy, sung in a hilarious patter-fest at strategic points in the musical of Tootsie, playing this week only at the Hippodrome, "I know what's gonna happen." What's going to happen is that you will attend the show and have an uproarious good time. Though it may not be exactly the good time you expected. The show has been quite significantly updated from the 1982 movie of the same name that it's based on.

Tinkering with the movie was not optional; gender, sexuality and cross-dressing are all central to the plot, and ideas about where it's acceptable to go on these subjects have changed a bit in 40 years. Nonetheless, the movie was one of the best-scripted, best-plotted, and funniest comedies of all time. So you mess with it at your peril. And surprisingly, much of the messing here seems unrelated to anyone's updated sense of the proprieties regarding sensitive subjects. Instead, the dynamic seems to have been more of a sense that the new creative team (book by Robert Horn, songs by David Yazbek) could outdo the old, definitely all-star, one (screenplay by Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May).

Sometimes the new team's hubris seems justified, as sublime as the old Tootsie was. The first task of either script has to be setting the story in motion by demonstrating that the protagonist, actor Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker), is impossible to work with and saddled with a resulting bad reputation in the New York theater ecosystem. In the movie, the task is done with an opening montage of terrible tryouts in which Michael's prickly uncooperativeness and his unpopularity are both emphasized. That material does surface a little later in the musical, but we start with a musical-within-the-musical, or at least its "Opening Number," which seems like a terribly-hackneyed paean to New York, a set-piece full of young strivers dancing ecstatically before a stylized backdrop of the Manhattan skyline - until it turns out to be only a rehearsal of the number, a rehearsal Michael, a cast member, disrupts in what will prove to be his characteristic way, which leads to his being fired on the spot. And yeah, that works even better. Better to start with a reason for knowing audience members to be rolling their eyes at the unworthiness of the material that understandably grates on Michael, and the reasons for his uncooperativeness, than to jump immediately to his frustration and desperation at unemployment, as the movie does. And at that point, the chorus then jumps in, still on the same set, now appearing as the chorus of Tootsie, to sing:

This is the tale of Michael Dorsey
He is the center of the plot
Is he an actor?
Yes, of course, he is
Is he successful?
Yes, of course, he's not

Showing is usually better than telling, but sometimes, as here, showing and telling is even better and funnier than merely showing.

Likewise, there are no lyrics in the movie, but the musical is required to have them, and a lot of them are really funny. For instance, take the clueless Max (Lukas James Miller), smitten with "Dorothy," the actress Michael pretends to be in order to find work. Max, given to bathetic comparisons, describes his infatuation thusly:

What is this thing that makes me toss in my bed?
'Cause I'm racked with distracting desires
This thing, God it's jammed in my head
Like a nail and I can't find the pliers

Sometimes the new team's hubris can seem overdone. As moviegoers will probably remember, "Dorothy" finds work on a schlocky soap opera, a place where artistic pretensions go to die. For some reason the new team have sent "Dorothy" to something more aspirational, a show that begins as a Broadway rendering of Romeo and Juliet, where she is cast in the role of Juliet's nurse. "Dorothy" persuades the producer to revamp the whole thing as something out of Fellini, which is probably on beyond improbable, even for Broadway. In other words, we've gone from a recognizable workplace to a make-believe one. And we've also incidentally eliminated one of the two sexist pigs who made the movie version of the place so toxic. We've kept the director Ron (Adam du Plessis), but we've eliminated John, who is transformed into Max, a vacuous boy-toy like Spike in Masha and Sonya and Vanya and Spike. I like Max, but the show also needs a complement of sexist pigs to work at full capacity.

Also, the new team haven't quite solved the problem of Julie, "Dorothy's" acting colleague who is also Michael's desired romantic partner (Ashley Alexandra, the Jessica Lange role in the original). It seems as if the two of them being ostensibly of the same sex is going to pose a problem, but it's an unexpected improvement that Julie discovers she could be open to a same-sex attraction. This reimagining of Julie does swap one other problem with her for another. The problem we lose is the romantic relationship she had with Ron the director in the movie version, in which she was passive and let him essentially abuse her; in the musical she turns Ron down. The problem that remains is that now she doesn't have enough to do if she's not canoodling submissively with Ron or struggling against that outcome. And for that matter "Dorothy" has less to do as well, because a major part of the good she does in the movie is empowering Julie vis-à-vis Ron.

In the end, though, the tradeoffs come out as a wash. The show is at least as funny as the movie was, and the characters are just as funny as well. The above-mentioned Sandy (Payton Reilly), here reimagined as Michael's ex-girlfriend, and sung and acted as a cross between Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and Amy in Company, is a non-stop source of hilarity. Michael's roommate Jeff (Bill Murray in the movie, Jared David Michael Grant here) is an expert at double-takes and slow-burn reactions and general bro behavior. And Steve Brustien brings a trifle more warmth to the role of Stan the agent than did Sydney Pollack in the original, but has the same weary seen-it-all, skeptical demeanor.

Of course the key is Michael/"Dorothy." And Drew Becker doesn't have quite Dustin Hoffman's male magnetism, but then again Hoffman didn't have to sing - quite competently - in falsetto. Bottom line: Becker does just fine.

Add to that that the songs are not only witty, but catchy and at times exciting.

And so, as I stated at the outset, we know what's gonna happen: You'll go and you'll have a good time.

All that said, it may be helpful to address briefly some of the serious critiques of Tootsie as a cultural icon and artifact.

Let me start with the 2019 comments of Christian Lewis, a queer critic who in American Theatre attacked Tootsie as "inherently transphobic." Lewis' take, as I understand it, is that any "man in a dress" performance which isn't explicitly queer must therefore be inherently transphobic, and an act of cultural misappropriation. In other words, there is no legitimate space for cross-dressing for purposes of comedy that is not drag, which is inherently a celebration of queerness.

I maintain that you need to demonstrate actual transphobia before leveling the accusation. It matters what the audience is laughing at. We have a long history of farce going back at least to Shakespeare in which cis-gendered straight characters are driven by circumstances to cross-dress. But the comic engine, there and here, is imposture, a staple of farce going back long before Shakespeare. Absent from this show, so far as I could discern, was any suggestion that people who are gay or trans are in any sense less, even amid all the hilarity over body parts, high heels and the like. Yes, women's clothing is not normal for Michael, but that doesn't translate into an implicit argument that it would be equally abnormal for all others. Absent such an implicit message, the fact that some transphobic audience member witnessing the show might somehow find in it a way to be confirmed in their transphobia doesn't count for much. Bigots always find a way to confirm their views everywhere, and cancelation of farcical imposture by cross-dressing would not likely deny oxygen to that bigotry.

And the cultural appropriation argument founders on history; in every other claim of appropriation that I'm familiar with, a group points to some cultural practice it has created but others are now using (generally in some way alleged to be offensive to the group). Here, the practice of heightening farce through imposture-by-cross-dressing seems to be as old as the theater, and without demonstrable roots in drag. No one holds a patent on cross-dressing that this show is violating.

I think the feminist critiques are better-founded (see e.g. Amanda Hess or Hedy Weiss or Caroline Madden (on the movie)). No one will deny that Tootsie advances some feminist messaging, for instance a strong shout-out to equal pay, an equally strong assault on condescending modes of address to women, and indignation toward sexual harassment in and around the workplace. The problems mostly spring from the fact that the feminist messenger is a not-very-feminist man who in the very process of positioning himself to see the world from a female perspective and articulate it grabs a job that a woman would expect to fill, treats a woman badly, and arguably, in trying to model activism, preempts the activist role that the women he models it for might otherwise fill. The musical certainly doesn't solve all these problems. Probably the most famous line in the movie, carried over into the show, Michael's observation to Julie after his unmasking as a man, is "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man." This declaration partly indicates that having had the chance to see the world from the position of a woman, with all the diminished privilege that implies, Michael the man's perspectives were broadened. It may be a bit unearned, but it counts for something.

In any case, even if you don't think the sexual politics are quite correct, what with the clowning and the laugh-out-loud lyrics and the falsetto singing and the dead-pan reactions to absurd situations, etc., etc., etc., I still know what's gonna happen. But you need to hurry and make it happen; the show closes this next Sunday.

Tootsie, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Robert Horn, directed by Dave Solomon, through December 5, at the Hippodrome Theatre, The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $48-$190, at Ticketmaster, or 800-343-3103. Adult language and situations.

Pictured above: Payton Reilly and Drew Becker

Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

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