Justice for Lilli Cooper!
I realize there are slightly more pressing problems in the world at the moment, but despite turning in consistently memorable performances in shows both large (Wicked, SpongeBob SquarePants) and small (Sundown, Yellow Moon), Cooper has yet to find her Millie Dillmount or Eliza Doolittle, the part that will catapult her to the superstardom of which she is so clearly capable. In fact, her role as the love interest in Tootsie may be her least interesting yet, an ironic twist and rare misstep in a show that has, perhaps out of necessity, made much hay of its feminist bonafides.
Tootsie makes sound business sense as an adaptation property; second in 1982 box office grosses only to E.T., its source film is a widely loved, Best Picture-nominated hit that has been on the National Film Registry since 1998.
Despite a location shift to Broadway, the film’s spine remains largely intact: actor Michael Dorsey’s abrasive, condescending manner has closed doors all over the city, so he dresses up as Dorothy Michaels and lands a Broadway show.
The film, and now musical’s, subject matter was always a risky proposition, made even more so by the current discourse around #MeToo and Time’s Up. Much digital ink has already been spilt on whether or not the show has been successfully or appropriately updated for contemporary audiences or how it deals with gender, trans identity, or traffics in transmisogyny or transphobia. I feel others would have a keener perspective on those issues than I would but I will note that as a case study of a dumb guy becoming slightly less dumb about what gals go through, the play works like gangbusters. This may not be the story many want to hear right now, but it’s the most fun I’ve had at the theater in months.
Santino Fontana’s performance as Michael Dorsey, the center of this Tootsie pop, is warm and funny and technically proficient. Santino is Michael/Dorothy, and not just in the sentimental sense; Robert Horn’s gag-stuffed book and scenic designer David Rockwell’s set feature several Santino Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed and -eared, including callbacks to his roles in Cinderella and Frozen. It’s a marriage of actor and part that just may give Santino his Eliza Doolittle moment. (And Paul Huntley’s fabulous wigs don’t hurt either.)
Many of the characters exist primarily to serve up joke volleys for him to spike, but what spikes! Fontana does bemused like no one else, and the band of misfits around him give him plenty of chances to ply his trade. Andy Grotelueschen and Sarah Stiles, as Michael’s equally underachieving friends Jeff and Sandy, get the score’s funniest numbers. John Behlmann, as a reality TV beefcake is as hunky as he is moronic, and Reg Rogers as a megalomaniacal director, pitch their performances broadly, but it largely works. Director Scott Ellis has brought his wealth of experience directing revivals such as She Loves Me and the currently-running Kiss Me, Kate to bear, wrangling the manifold energies of the piece into classic screwball musical comedy shape.
It’s ironic that David Yazbek should premiere what may be his least exciting score on the heels of the closure of The Band’s Visit, perhaps his best. This isn’t much of a criticism, really, since Yazbek is one of the best composers working the Great White Way today, and one of the few auteurs remaining in an industry with increasingly little interest in artistic signatures. The score feels more like pastiche than vintage Yazbek, though, running the gamut from tongue-twisting Women on the Verge kook (“What’s Gonna Happen”) to Full Monty funk (“Gone, Gone, Gone”).
Yazbek’s lyrics are as witty as ever, more than keeping pace with Robert Horn’s book.
Now if they could only write Lilli Cooper a great part.