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Review: Funny But Flawed TOOTSIE Musical Adaptation Sashays Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Despite a problematic central premise, TOOTSIE's stage reincarnation still manages to elicit many LOL moments

Review: Funny But Flawed TOOTSIE Musical Adaptation Sashays Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Popular movies from the previous century have always been a reliable treasure-trove for Broadway producers to mine for new stage adaptations, lest they be forced to champion an original, from-scratch, unfamiliar new musical. So it's not much of a surprise to see that from the crowded pack of past favorites, the hit 80's comedy Tootsie---the witty and insightful rom-com directed by Sydney Pollack that stars renowned thespian Dustin Hoffman... doing drag---made the cut.

I get it. It was hella funny.

A humorous film I have enjoyed repeatedly since first seeing it on home video as a teen (thanks to Mom and Dad's movie library), Tootsie is utterly hilarious---and surprisingly endearing---to see Hoffman play temperamental, unemployable actor Michael Dorsey, who decides, rather haphazardly, to cure his inability to get hired by auditioning to be on a daytime soap opera... while pretending to be a woman.

Remarkably, this female alter-ego---a "mature" lady he names Dorothy Michaels---is hired with great enthusiasm, and even becomes a beloved, fan-favorite presence on the show, thanks to her fierce advocacy of modern female empowerment and independence. At the same time, he also develops an ill-fated crush on a sultry female co-star in the process.

The film, as expected, spends the rest of its running time following the fantastical feats Michael/Dorothy must do to keep the fraud going, that then, of course, spills over into madcap, hilarious high jinks until the big secret unravels.

But beyond this surface comedic plot, the Academy Award-winning satire addresses gender politics in a surprisingly thoughtful way... but, of course, through the limited lens of cisgender straight males in 1980's America. In its own way, the film audience is supposed to glean that Michael, despite the deceit, becomes somewhat more enlightened by the plight of women by literally walking a mile in Dorothy's shoes---even while committing, well, fraud.

In this case, Hoffman's portrayal contributed greatly to why audiences rooted for him (and, well, Dorothy) to succeed. Even though we know it's outright fraud, there's an overarching depth to his deception that results in enlightenment, if that makes any sense.

It's not a stretch to conclude then that a movie bathed in this type of old-school thinking feels very much like a risky choice to remake verbatim now, given the kind of (relatively) increased progress and awareness that has transpired in our world since its cinematic release four decades ago.

Today, I feel it is much harder to just gloss over the movie's central conceit as anything but a problematic one, particularly as a running series of scenes that make a mockery out of the real-world challenges and obstacles that face the transgender community. For the show to move forward with such a storyline in our current times, it should, I think at the very least, involve implementing a huge, thematic overhaul that expands on the depth shown by Hoffman's superb portrayal, that will hopefully re-render the main character's behavior as an excusable one, one that opens up empathy and understanding.

Seeing men dressing up as women for the sake of comedy is, of course, not a new thing, particularly within the more progressive environment of musical theater. But peel off TOOTSIE's humorous surface layers as it exists in its current form and you'll only find a main character whose sole purpose is to get laughs out of his use of gender-swapping to fool others.

If you're wondering how a now classic film like Tootsie can exist in the era of the #MeToo movement, then look no further than this funny but flawed 2018 Broadway stage adaptation.

Aside from a few brief throw-away lines that feel like half-hearted lip service moments meant to at least bring up the elephant in the room (then shoved quickly right back into the closet), TOOTSIE - THE MUSICAL---now playing at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through June 12, 2022---pretty much follows the same base blueprints as its source material. But rather than use the adaptation as a means to reinvent and re-contextualize Michael Dorsey as much more than just a self-centered blowhard desperate for work, the show instead banks heavily on the lure of familiar nostalgia, accented with a few modern tweaks here and there---none of which truly attempt to absolve the character of his sins.

Review: Funny But Flawed TOOTSIE Musical Adaptation Sashays Into OC's Segerstrom Center
Payton Reilly and Drew Becker

Sounds like an awful show, right? Well... okay... so here's the surprising thing that has me feeling really conflicted: for the most part, despite its still questionable central premise, the show is, for the most part, a genuinely funny musical comedy, sprinkled with lots of funny lines, snappy rapid-fire humor, and amusing shenanigans that provide an entertaining night out at the theater.

But all this laughter, not surprisingly, comes with some uneasy caveats. First, one must suspend all real-world notions about how Broadway musicals are produced, workshopped, and staged, because everything that transpires around the creation of Juliet's Curse---TOOTSIE's musical-within-a-musical---is just ridiculously unrealistic (though insanely funny). And second, one must ultimately be incredibly forgiving of the selfish motivations of its main protagonist, and to also feel okay that this character doesn't suffer any real-world consequences when it all comes crashing down, nor does he truly understand the grander nature of what he did (all this is not a spoiler, by the way).

Those two caveats were certainly top-of-mind while experiencing the non-equity national tour's recent Wednesday press opening night performance in Costa Mesa---which, ironically, also happened to coincide with the first day of LGBTQ+ Pride Month. So while this slight discomfort hovered around during the show's two acts, the packed audience still managed to find things throughout TOOTSIE that made us all laugh out loud.

And to be honest, no matter how much I objected to the idea that the main character would use drag as a means to selfishly deceive and not as an expression of one's true identity or as an expression of performative artistry, I did find myself laughing throughout the show, but mostly because the unsympathetic protagonist is surrounded by (and, at times, even deservedly mocked by) a cavalcade of funny, terrific supporting characters that often stole the show.

Is this a distraction tactic? Maybe.

With that said, I think this might be the first time I ever found myself really wanting to see a main character get his deserved comeuppance.

To be clear, this is not at all a dig at actor Drew Becker, who is tasked with the title role in the Dave Solomon-directed touring production. For his part, Becker turns in an admirable job of voice- and shape-shifting between his character's real identity, the intense Michael Dorsey, and Michael's "drag" counterpart, the sweet yet ball-busting Dorothy Michaels. He makes the best out of a somewhat unlikeable character that, ultimately, doesn't really learn any lessons from his misdeed---he just kinda feels bad that he got caught and that he might have lost out on a budding relationship with a really nice, awesome girl.

Becker's Michael Dorsey, as he is in the film, is similarly presented as a difficult actor in this iteration, an opinionated know-it-all that feels his ideas are always the best ones in the room. After arguing his way out of another acting gig by angering the show's scenery-chewing director Ron Carlisle (Adam du Plessis), he discovers that his reputation as a disagreeable person has made the rounds of all the casting offices in New York. Nobody wants to hire him, and even his frazzled agent (Steve Brustien) is fed up with having him as a client.

With bills piling up and rent coming due, Michael is desperate.

But soon, a ray of light appears. Thanks to a visit from his suuuuper extra ex-girlfriend Sandy (fast-talking Payton Reilly), he learns about open auditions for a brand new Carlisle-directed Broadway musical sequel to Romeo and Juliet, called Juliet's Curse (ha!) that prompts a devious plan: in order for Michael to audition for the significant role of the Nurse in the show, he must do so disguised as a woman---that way he won't be turned away, especially by Carlisle or the show's producers who might be aware of his tainted reputation.

By some strange hand of the theatrical gods, Michael---disguised as no-nonsense "Dorothy Michaels"---wins the role of the Nurse handily, perhaps due to a feisty but vocally epic audition that somewhat intrigues Carlisle, and impresses the entire cast, as well as the show's producer Rita Marshall (Kathy Haled).

Especially enamored with "Dorothy" are the show's other two leads: the lovely and sweet-natured Julie (the superb-voiced Ashley Alexandria), who quickly bonds with her new co-star over a mutual desire to improve the production, and the show's hunky, dim-bulb love interest Max (the hilariously swoon-worthy Lukas James Miller), a former Reality TV show star that the producers stunt-casted as the show's main paramour in order to help lure in an entirely new audience thirsty for his Insta-ready chiseled features.

Review: Funny But Flawed TOOTSIE Musical Adaptation Sashays Into OC's Segerstrom Center
Adam du Plessis (center) and the cast of TOOTSIE

Naturally, the news of Michael's new gig is met with surprise by Michael's best friend/roommate Jeff (the hilarious scene-stealer Jared David Michael Grant), who apparently has been designated as the sole voice of reason for Michael---and, I guess, the show itself. Warning him of his deceitful action's hurtful, immoral and, well, criminal consequences, Jeff pulls out the bullet points of what many of us are already objecting to while watching TOOTSIE, including the fact that he essentially usurped the role from actual women who wanted the role---including his own ex-girlfriend!

Again... merely pointing out what's problematic but STILL continue to let it play out in said show doesn't absolve anything! But, hey.... we're all laughing, so it's okay, right?

Unlike man-child Michael, "Dorothy" is his emotionally mature polar opposite, a subtle way for TOOTSIE to say that the existence of Dorothy, in a way, makes Michael a better man/human. Thus her lovely, sweet natured cadence is much more palatable to listen to, even while voicing constant objections and suggestions to improve the train wreck of a show that they're in.

How bad is it? Well, the original plot of the soon-to-open Juliet's Curse involves Juliet Montague not dying after all at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet. Instead she falls head-over-heals for Romeo's hunky (and alive) brother Craig (yikes!).

As the show hurtles toward Opening Night, the constant revisions "suggested" by "Dorothy" are somehow just happily accepted by everyone, and have now been incorporated into a heavily retooled new show, redubbed Juliet's Nurse---which, of course, now promotes the Nurse into the leading role. Um... and everyone's just okay with this, including the producer and Julie? (Okay, yeah, I'm laughing).

A love triangle of sorts also takes shape: after spending more time with Julie, Michael starts to develop romantic feelings for her. Meanwhile, dumb hottie Max is crazy for the more mature "Dorothy."

Not surprisingly, Michael's deception isn't fully sustainable in the long term, so things begin to crumble all around him---complicated further when, in a moment of euphoria, he thoughtlessly kisses Julie while disguised as "Dorothy," causing understandable confusion while sealing the fate of their friendship forever.

A fairly by-the-numbers musical comedy filled with generously funny moments and laugh-out-loud words and situations, TOOTSIE is genuinely entertaining, but is somewhat sidelined by many "What If's"---as in what if this part of the show was reimagined or what if that part was tweaked?

Here's the thing: the beauty of adapting and revitalizing something that previously existed in a different format is having the opportunity to improve upon and, in some cases, correct, aspects of the material---to do something different with it or to make something much more reflective of the times it now resides in. This 2018 adaptation is not meant to be a faithful remake set in the film's original time period---so why not use this adaptation as a teachable moment?

TOOTSIE's stage iteration, while still genuinely funny, is also, unfortunately, a missed opportunity---not only for its creatives to make the central premise more palatable for 21st century gender identity, but to also create a safe(r) space for gender expression that's not simply used as a means for employability.

Aside from seeing him actually suffer consequences for his fraud (I'm also looking at you, Evan Hansen), I would have liked to have seen Michael own up to negatively affecting not only Julie's life but also other folks in the cast, perhaps maybe a talented female or trans female understudy who didn't land the role at the expense of Michael's "Dorothy" but then later, after Michael's downfall, triumphs and saves the show from scandal.

Here's a thought: why not include actual openly LGBTQ+ characters to weigh in on---or even be directly invested in or affected by---what the main character is doing? Rather than continuing to highlight the misadventures of another cisgender straight white male's experience impersonating a female actress to get ahead, what would have happened if Michael was reimagined as a semi-decent gay drag queen whose experience as "Dorothy" elevates his artistry to the next level, or, even more, if the experience actually sparks an epiphany that, perhaps, "Dorothy" is who she was really meant to be?

Or you know what would have been cool? If either Max or Julie---rather than recoil at the discovery that they both developed a crush on a man in drag---both make the realization that maybe they're bisexual, gay, or pansexual, and then celebrate that discovery? Or how about making Michael's best friend/roommate a pro drag performer, thereby providing Michael with tutoring, a direct line of inspiration, and a forgiving ally... rather than keeping Michael simply as a selfish usurper?

Looking at the bigger picture, TOOTSIE, at its core, is constructed well, using the foundations of the movie but revising enough of its elements to make its stage version a fresh property that's still reminiscent of its non-musical cinematic source material, yet also cognizant of modern theatrics.

The stage musical features peppy new music and lyrics by David Yazbeck and a new book/script by Robert Horn, based on the original story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart. Horn's very funny book certainly contributes to the show's comical prowess, as delivered by its impressive ensemble cast, who sing Yazbeck's score with power and verve, and dance Denis Jones' fun-to-watch choreography with amazing high-energy.

Review: Funny But Flawed TOOTSIE Musical Adaptation Sashays Into OC's Segerstrom Center

Many of the show's modern updates do work. Instead of its lead character landing a role on a daytime melodrama---these days an antique remnant of a bygone era---the coveted acting gig is now a starring role in a Broadway musical... though a very, very bad one at that. The production does a great job of differentiating the actual show from the show-within-a-show. The touring version also features colorful 80's-inspired sets by Christine Peters adapted for the road from David Rockwell's original scenic designs from the Broadway production. William Ivey Long's costumes have also made its way on tour, dressing the cast in hues and fabrics that don't place them in a very specific time period, but still keep them thematically in the right step.

To sum things up, TOOTSIE on stage is funny, amusingly light, but comes with heavy baggage. Get ready to laugh... but if you're like me, get ready to also feel a little guilty for laughing afterwards, too.

Photos by Evan Zimmerman, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of TOOTSIE - THE MUSICAL continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through June 12, 2022.



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