By: David Yazbek and Robert Horn
At: Broadway In Chicago, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Tickets: 800/775-2000 or www.BroadwayInChicago.com; $35-$105
Deep into the first act of Tootsie, now in its pre-Broadway premiere at the Cadillac Palace, one actor remarks to another how much better their lives would be if the characters they played in the play-within-their-play were sympathetic. I couldn't agree more. While the hardworking performers selling this comedy should be given their due, Tootsie offers little in the way of strong sympathy or personal transformation in a musical adaptation of the 1982 film that really needs to justify its existence in order to dispel skepticism and outright vitriol from this reviewer.
Michael ( Santino Fontana, whom you may know from Frozen and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ) is a struggling actor whose temperamental outbursts and ongoing inability to compromise cost him job after job. After his ex Sandy ( Sarah Stiles ) asks him to help her prep for a major audition in a musical version of Romeo and Julietwhere Juliet ends up dating Romeo's brother Craighe takes the opportunity to don a wig and a dress and impress Broadway director Ron ( Reg Rogers ) himself. Michael winds up playing the Nurse to Julie's ( Lilli Cooper ) Juliet, and soon, their chemistry offstage complicates Michael's deceit onstage.
If you've seen Tootsie the movie, there have been adjustments to Tootsie the musical that might allow you to forgive its outdated take on gender performance and identity. For example, Twitter is mentioned a lot, people have smartphones now, and the Broadway stage stands in for the movie's soap opera production. Robert Horn's book makes reference to women being stronger than men, but unfortunately strands each female character in storylines solely about their relationships with men. His references to directors abusing their power were real clunkers for me, in particular.
Composer David Yazbek, fresh off winning a Tony for The Band's Visit, is adept at telling small stories through song, but he struggles to leave much of an impression with the music here. His best moments come from Julie, whose ballad about becoming an actress tells us much about her, while doubly revealing how little we truly know about Michael's motivations. Late in the play, Michael sings to his Dorothy wig, and the mere suggestion that he had a complex identity in acting as a woman would maybe have lightened the impression that gender is a binary and that playing with gender performance, or transitioning, is invalid. But probably not. The writers don't want this show to be about gender. They want it to be about honesty. What they've wound up with is problematic and pointless.
Director Scott Ellis and choreographer Denis Jones keep the pace snappy. Fontana is game, while Stiles and Cooper steal their scenes with ease. But Tootsie is an asinine exercise in rehashing troublesome ideas about identity. And by the time Michael apologizes for everything he's done, you might feel the show's creators owe you an apology, too. In the world of Tootsie, as is too often the case these days, simply apologizing if you're a man seems to be enough.