We’ve all had that moment of genius, usually while getting stuck on TCM, when the brilliant idea reveals itself to us: This film really deserves a remake, an update stripped of archaic notions or bad hair and polished to a shiny modern sheen. Some movies all but demand it. Tootsie isn’t one. Sydney Pollack’s 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman seems so perfectly of its time – right down to the blissful ignorance of its unexamined mansplaining – that any fiddling would seem as unnecessary as spray tan on a president.
You’ll have just enough time during the false-start opening moments of director Scott Ellis’ wonderful new Tootsie to ponder such things, and then the musical and its star Santino Fontana grab hold and don’t let go. It’s not without a few runs in its stockings, but this Tootsie is a delight, a not-quite-blind date that plays out so much better than you could have imagined.
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With music and lyrics by Tony-winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) and a laugh-out-loud book by Robert Horn (whose writing credits include Designing Women and shows for Bette Midler and Dame Edna, among others), Tootsie hauls itself into 2019 leaving behind what needs leaving and, with a whopping exception or two, adding what needs adding.
Gone is the soap opera setting (makes sense – gone is New York’s soap industry), replaced by a Broadway milieu that provides the obvious flourishes – music and dancing, for starters. The change in setting requires some sacrifices, from the small (no cameraman around to deliver the great “How do you feel about Cleveland?”) to the not so small (the film’s convincingly authentic depiction of the soap world gives way to a more cartoonish depiction of the theater community).
There are other sacrifices and missed opportunities, but first a recap: Michael Dorsey (Fontana) is a struggling and very difficult New York actor who, at 40, can’t get through an audition without insulting the room, has just been fired by his agent (Michael McGrath) and has broken the heart of fragile ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles). He’s on better terms with his equally stunted roommate, longtime pal, the wannabe playwright Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen).
While helping run lines with Sandy for a stage audition, Michael, demonstrating how it should be done, has an epiphany: He’ll audition for the female role himself, and does – successfully. Suspension of disbelief #1: If Dustin Hoffman in drag winning a bit part on a soap demanded our leap of faith, the Broadway casting-within-the-casting does so tenfold. Go for it and enjoy the rewards.
Michael, as the newly christened Dorothy, falls in love with the leading lady Julie (Lilli Cooper), now a stage songbird making ends meet in the sort of comically terrible Off Broadway production (this one an updating of Romeo and Juliet, with a happy ending) that don’t really exist anymore. Suspension of disbelief #2.
No matter. Dorothy’s casting as Juliet’s nurse, and the Method Actor improvisations that supposedly elevate the production to hit Broadway status – #3 – bring the expected farcical misunderstandings. The piggish director (Reg Rogers) gives Dorothy a worthy comic foil, and the dimwitted but abs-perfect male ingenue (John Behlmann), a talentless newcomer from a Bachelor-type reality show, develops a crush on Dorothy that’s surprising to both.
If you know the movie, you know what happens. There are some plot changes – Julie no longer has a father to complicate things, and her suspicion that Dorothy is a lesbian prompts a quite different response than Jessica Lange’s startled retreat.
Better still: The movie’s female soap producer is here changed to a theater producer, a champion of Dorothy and, with the great Julie Halston in the role, another example of this production’s treats.
Now, to address that big elephant: A farce based on gender disguise – even one as woke as Tootsie, which addresses (though mostly dismisses) the sticky issue of a man stealing a role from not only a woman but all women – could unwrap its misunderstandings with a simple 21st Century solution never entertained by this musical or its characters. Michael Dorsey is a heterosexual man who chooses, for whatever reason, to present as a woman named Dorothy. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Of course, pull that thread and the entire cashmere sweater comes undone, so you’ll either leave it be or you won’t. If you do, you’ll witness a team at the top of its game: William Ivey Long’s costumes, from the naturalistic streetwear to Dorothy’s boxy, not garish ensembles (well, the red sparkly number is a tad on the showy side), hit all the right balances, and, like David Rockwell’s scenic design, does some quick and clever transforming – bad Elizabethan turns funny Fellini when Dorothy starts script-changing. (Rockwell’s design for Michael’s Manhattan apartment is a bit confused, though, with more doors than seem required – one of which lost its knob during the previewed performance, prompting a well-received ad lib from Grotelueschen).
Yazbek’s score is maybe a bit too heavy on the mid-tempo numbers, but there’s enough mixing-up to keep things hopping (Sandy’s “What’s Gonna Happen?,” a lightning-paced ode to self-doubt, is expertly performed by Stiles in one of the musical’s best diversions). Denis Jones’ choreography is big and splashy and knows it, particularly funny when the sexist director is leading his company through one silly move after another, narrating the self-explanatory maneuvers every step of the way.
Best of all is Horn’s dialogue, loaded with sitcom zingers (and that’s no insult). The gags won’t play on this page – the sweet and stupid hunk proudly proclaims his love for his gramma anytime someone criticizes his grammar. Really, it’s funny, not least because Behlmann, like the rest of the cast, is thoroughly committed to the outlandishness.
In fact, there’s not a weak link in this cast, though the whole thing pretty much belongs to Fontana. His choice to sound like Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy, homage or otherwise, could be questioned – the musical distinguishes itself so thoroughly from the film that reminders are less pitfalls than distractions.
That’s a quibble though. Tootsie can stand on its own two heels.
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