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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

'Tootsie' Rolls Into the Hippodrome with Laughs Galore

t’s a good bet that you have already seen the 1982 Oscar winning film Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman in the theater or on cable. After all, it grossed north of $177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Well, like so many instances in recent years, a musical was created based on a film, and Tootsie, originally appearing in Chicago, made it to Broadway in 2019 and captured two Tony Awards among its 11 nominations for its efforts. Tootsie is not just a musical; it is a comedy musical with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn, God bless him!  The lyrics are punchy and clever, but I find the music with the exception of a few of songs is not all that memorable. Denis Jones’ choreography, though, is memorable and impeccable.177 million and that is when the prices of movie tickets were still in the single digits.

Now on tour, Tootsie has made its way to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater for a brief time, and like the movie it is pure joy. While the contours of the plot remain intact with some characters added and subtracted and the show within the show has changed from a soap opera to a musical, the stage version is more hilarious.

The satirizing of musical theatre is evident throughout Tootsie. You know that when the opening number on the song list is called “Opening Number” you’re in for a funny ride. Laughter is guaranteed with almost every character contributing; you will need to pace yourself as the comedy is constant and unrelenting.

The most significant difference with this musical is that the lead character, unlike the film, must sing as well as act. Drew Becker, playing the dual roles of Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, is magnificent on many levels and hits the grueling challenge of playing both roles out of the park.  

As a refresher if you had seen the film version and if not, here is what happens. Michael Dorsey is a talented actor who has struggled getting parts because of self-inflicted wounds derived from his arrogant personality and temper tantrums that render him radioactive to producers, directors, other performers and agents alike.

At an audition for a musical “Juliet’s Curse,” that was subsequently changed to “Juliet’s Nurse” – a sure-fire flop and the sequel to "Romeo and Juliet"—prior to its mounting on Broadway, Michael observes a string of women being turned down for the role of Nurse. He gets an idea that if he dresses like a woman named Dorothy Michaels, the baggage stemming from his volatile reputation would not be known and his talent alone can land him the role.

Disguised as a woman, Dorothy convinces the producer at the audition that she is right for the role and gets the part. Along the way, Dorothy befriends her co-star who becomes Michael’s romantic interest only to hurt her, sets aside his anxious ex-girlfriend Sandy, baffles his roommate Jeff and creates havoc during this impersonation.

Dorothy (remember it is Michael in disguise) tries to stand up to the sexism that is often displayed on the set. As an example, the director condescendingly uses cringe-worthy nicknames, such as “honey,” “precious” and yes, “tootsie.” Dorothy reminds him that she has a name and spells that out. And there are arguments made concerning the inequality of pay experienced by women. Moreover, acknowledging gender fluididity, a point is made by the director that people are free to be whoever they want.

Unfortunately, the male characters are the ones speaking about feminism with the female characters not given the chance to decry sexism, and there is a degree of using for comedic effect the possibility that one of the characters may be lesbian —notions I find problematic in the book.

As previously mentioned, Drew Becker shines in the dual roles. So convincing is he that I truly believed his Act One rendition of “I Won’t Let You Down” as Dorothy, one of the show’s best numbers, was actually sung by a woman. His ability to hit the high register with such clarity and consistency is truly amazing. As Michael, Mr. Becker displays a pitch perfect tenor voice in “Whaddya Do” for example. His performance with the Ensemble in the production number “Unstoppable” that concludes the first act is a show stopper.

Onstage for virtually the entire show, Mr. Becker is fluid in changing from one character to another often in frenetic moments. Yet, it his ability to work so proficiently with other cast members in the many comedic spots that add more luster to his performance.   

For instance, the chemistry and repartee between Michael/Dorothy and his roommate Jeff Slater, a struggling writer, could be the makings of a sitcom. Jared David Michael Grant plays that role with unbridled enthusiasm and is a natural scene stealer. Incredibly funny facial expressions and voice inflections in addition to his precise comedic timing make Mr. Grant a standout. The duet with Michael, “Jeff Sums It Up” is truly hilarious.

 “Juliet’s Nurse’s” star Julie Nichols is one of the few relatively non-comedic roles. Ashley Alexandra displays her vocal and acting skills with sensitivity in portraying the character. She becomes the love interest of Michael/Dorothy. A somewhat lonely soul at the crossroads of her life, Julie finds that Dorothy fills a void she has been missing only to learn of the deception and betrayal at the hands of Dorothy.  Ms. Alexandra has a lovely soprano voice, which becomes apparent when she performs “Who Are You.”

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester, an actress who failed to land the role in “Juliet’s Curse,” is another comic standout.  The ex-girlfriend of Michael, Sandy is neurotic and self-pitying and pessimistic about any outcome. Her big and only number is “What’s Gonna Happen,” which lampoons her being overemotional, is so big that it is reprised two more times. It may seem like overkill but it is placed at the right moments.

"...the comedy is constant and unrelenting "

Then there is dimwit reality star winner of “Race to Bachelor Island” Max Van Horn who is cast as Romeo’s brother in “Juliet’s Nurse.” played perfectly by Lukas James Miller, Max has two propensities: he butchers words and exposes his well-muscled upper torso. Instead of saying Romeo, he says Rome-O. Instead of a plague on both your houses, he says plaque. That gives you an idea.

He is a purely comical character with his superficiality and goofy conceit, and Mr. Miller plays it supremely. He can sing too. His performance of the ballad “This Thing” where he proclaims his love for Dorothy by displaying a tattoo of her face on his chest showcases a smooth tenor voice.

Adam Du Plessis is uproariously funny as the director and choreographer of “Juliet’s Nurse” Ron Carlisle. The character is arrogant and irritating for sure but his performance in the production number “I’m Alive” as choreographer is one of the show’s highlights.

Excellent performances are turned in by Steve Brustien as the gruff and impatient agent Stan Fields and Kathy Halenda as Rita Marshall, the producer of “Juliet’s Nurse” who was from the outset impressed by Dorothy’s talent. Ms. Halenda performs well in the production number “The Most Important Night Of My Life.”

The Ensemble is also wonderful with their smooth precise dancing and backing the leads with fine singing throughout.

Christine Peters designed the functional set that include large blocks that slide out along the stage and unfold to reveal the various scenes. The smooth transition of the scenes makes for superb staging of the production.

Costume Designer William Ivey Long did a fine job with the contemporary garb as well as the Renaissance attire for the performers in "Juliet's Nurse." Also, the costumes for the Ensemble look great.

Lighting Designer Donald Holder illuminated the stage with colorful combinations that enhance the quality of the production. While Brian Ronan’s sound design was fine in most cases, the mic’s seem to have a bit of an issue in the second act where the orchestration overwhelmed the singers in spots. Hopefully, that will be remedied.

We can all use a good laugh, and with a strikingly talented cast, Tootsie at the Hippodrome delivers in a big way. Note the theater is not responsible if you pull something while laughing. Hurry and order tickets. 

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for young children.

TOOTSIE runs through December 5 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Below is a video that provides a flavor of the show.

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