Review: TOOTSIE at Rochester Broadway Theatre League

Now through September 25th.

By: Sep. 23, 2022
Review: TOOTSIE at Rochester Broadway Theatre League

The Rochester Broadway Theatre League begins its 2022-2023 M&T Bank Broadway season with something fun and splashy, a perfect date night musical based on one of the 1980s' most beloved pop culture gems. "Tootsie", the Robert Horn and David Yazbek musical adaption of the 1982 Dustin Hoffman film of the same name, is a light and springy show about showbiz, which also attempts to grapple with the difficulties of being a woman in a man's world. Rochester is the first stop on Tootsie's national tour.

From StageAgent: Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker) is a skilled actor with a talent for not keeping a job. His volatile, stubborn nature gives him a reputation for being a difficult actor and a director's worst nightmare. After a string of failed auditions, Michael is turning forty and desperate. He is further riled when his best friend and roommate, Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant), reminds him of the ambitious 'To-Do List' he made to accomplish before he turned forty. Michael has a bright idea and decides to make one last-ditch effort at achieving theatrical success. Dressed in drag, he attends his next audition as actress Dorothy Michaels. Sure enough, Dorothy is cast as the lead in the new, Broadway-bound musical, Juliet's Nurse, and Michael/Dorothy experiences a meteoric rise to stardom. Promising that "I Won't Let You Down", Dorothy soon has audiences falling at her feet. Looking at the world through Dorothy's eyes, Michael has a life-changing epiphany: "Women listen to each other." He becomes close friends with his co-star Julie (Ashley Alexandra), and it isn't long before Michael (disguised as Dorothy) starts to fall for her. As the show progresses, the audience learns whether Michael can sustain his greatest acting challenge or reveal the truth and be true to himself.

There's lots to love about "Tootsie". The script and overall aesthetic---particularly the apartment scenes---are highly reminiscent of a 1980's sitcom, chalked full of perfectly-timed comedic bits that were tailor-made for a laugh track (though one is not needed, as the audience provides plenty of authentic laughter). The friendship/rivalry/love triangle between Michael, Jeff, and Sandy (Payton Reilly) anchors the show, providing equal amounts of drama and hilarity. And of course, there's impressive acting abound. The theatrical gymnastics required of the Michael/Dorothy role are hard to fathom, demanding the performer to toggle between a man and woman---and all the inherent differences in voice, singing and overall mannerism therein---constantly throughout the show, capturing both Michael's bloated ego and Dorothy's no-nonsense attitude. Becker is quite up to this challenge, capturing the audience's affection and rage equally depending on which character he's living in in that particular moment.

Equally talented is Grant's Jeff, whose comedic timing and sensibilities make for the perfect buddy sidekick that the role calls for. Grant is a Rochester native and School of the Arts graduate, making this stop on the tour particularly meaningful for himself and audiences alike.

Predictably, there's a lot to unpack with "Tootsie" regarding the show's gender dynamics, which I'll generously describe as 'transphobia-adjacent'. "Tootsie" is very much a product of its time, as the movie was released during the 1980's, a period in which the public and culture at-large weren't really grappling with issues of gender and trans rights in any meaningful way. The 1980's and early 1990's were overflowing with movies and TV shows featuring men crossdressing as women ("Tootsie", "Mrs. Doubtfire", "The Birdcage", etc.), some of which were funny and handled with a delicate touch, and others which have aged like a glass of milk left in the sun. The musical adaption of "Tootsie" doesn't squarely fall in either camp. Horn and Yazbeck were certainly aware of the terrain they were traversing visa vie trans issues, and tried to write the story in a way that wouldn't land them in any hot water. To that end, they were mildly successful. The "Tootsie" stage adaptation is definitely infused with more complex themes of gender, feminism, and trans rights than the source material was. Dorothy has several monologues trumpeting the difficulties and injustices women face in show business, and society in general, culminating in the grabby applause line "being a woman is no job for a man." And on more than one occasion Jeff goes to great lengths to describe to Michael precisely how cruel and unjust it is to rob a woman of a coveted acting role through lies and deceit. That said, the script still contains a few too many jabs at Dorothy's manly physique for my taste, and couldn't quite shake the movie's penchant for using a woman's body as a punchline. These cringy moments aren't quite frequent enough to completely distract from the main story, but it's still frustrating to know that these lazy jabs could have just as easily been removed from the story without sacrificing the comedy or overall narrative arc.

"Tootsie" is playing at Rochester's Auditorium Theatre until September 25th, for tickets and more information click here.