Review: Hilarious 'Tootsie' Lands Jokes with Sitcom Precision

Released in 1982, the film Tootsie has crossed the border into middle age. If you’re lucky, middle age can be the best of times: a time when, having managed to gain some wisdom, you’ve learned what you want and are no longer concerned with what you don’t. If you’re unlucky, the wheels can fall off.

For Michael Dorsey, it’s a little bit of both. He knows what he wants: success as an actor, real success, not just playing tomatoes. He’s started to lose faith when the improbable idea on which the story hinges occurs to him — he could impersonate a woman and audition as her. Sure, he’s a little solid around the middle (one character describes him as “sturdy”), but so what? Don’t solid women deserve roles, and, for that matter, men dressed as solid women?

Onstage via Broadway Grand Rapids through October 16th, Tootsie answers that question in the affirmative. A musical based on the film, it leans heavily into comedy, landing jokes with sitcom precision. Several times, audience members shook with laughter.

The writers took advantage of the intervening years to update the story, often to great effect. Rather than auditioning for a part on a soap opera, Dorothy Michaels (as Dorsey now calls himself) is auditioning for a part in a bonkers Broadway production: a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. It isn’t exactly good, but Dorothy has some ideas about how to fix that.

Any number of graduate theses could be written on the gender politics of all this. What does it mean, in 2022, to have a straight man disguise himself as a woman, only to then improve some women’s lives through his advocacy for them? The show’s aware of potential landmines, and skirts them elegantly enough; anyway, nothing explodes.

Drew Becker is utterly convincing as Michael Dorsey, and pretty convincing as Dorothy Michaels. And that’s fine; Dustin Hoffman, who starred in the film, wasn’t 100% convincing as Michaels, either. He’s outshined, though, by some of his costars, most notably Payton Reilly, who plays Sandy Lester, his ex. Reilly has exquisite coming timing, playing Lester with manic energy and real joy. If Tootsie were a television show, she’d be its most beloved character.

The music is slightly less effective the comedy. The inarguably titled “Opening Number,” an old-fashioned ode to New York City ambition, plays as a fake-out; an interruption partway through led me to believe it was meant to be corny, and that better music would follow. And to an extent better music does follow, but it isn’t better enough to be memorable. It was ephemeral, disappearing from my memory as soon as the last note played.

It isn’t obvious, in the end, that Tootsie should be a musical. Its best moments are made up of dialogue and physical comedy, the well-made structure over which the façade of songs has been dropped. Earlier, I imagined Tootsie as a TV show, and that could work. But what they really should consider is a movie.

Broadway Grand Rapids
Oct. 11-16