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Review: 'Tootsie' harkens back and renews the classic Broadway formula

The Mel Brooks-inspired comedy of ASU Gammage's fifth show reminds the audience of a Golden Age of Broadway


The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE at The Musical Sheas Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

"Tootsie," ASU Gammage’s fifth show of the 2021-2022 season that opened Tuesday, reeks of classic Broadway.

Clearly inspired by other shows within a show like the Mel Brooks-directed "The Producers" and "A Chorus Line," "Tootsie" shows a clear appreciation for the industry, with the cliché dreams of fame and the harsh reality of competing with everyone else in the city with the exact same dream.

Based on the 1982 movie by the same name, "Tootsie" follows a struggling, middle-aged actor named Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker). He has talent, but he is every stereotypical difficult actor rolled into one. 

The show opens with Michael getting fired after a fight with his director, Ron Carlisle (Adam du Plessis), about his character’s backstory and motivations. 

His role? The Guy who Walks in the Background.

Out of a job and desperate for work, Michael finds himself donning a dress, a curly red wig and a Southern accent to an audition for a sequel to "Romeo and Juliet," in which Juliet survives her death and falls in love with Romeo's brother, Craig.

At the start of the show, Michael is an insufferable character and deserves a lot of the rejections he receives. But as soon as he dons his disguise as Dorothy Michaels, he wins the heart of the characters and the audience. Dorothy is so likable that when Michael takes off the disguise, it’s upsetting and leaves you waiting for him to put the wig back on.

Becker puts on an amazing performance as Dorothy that reaches the same quality as Santino Fontana, the original Broadway actor who won the Tony for Best Actor in 2019.

There is a clear attempt by the writers throughout the show to acknowledge it is based on a 40-year-old movie, and the comedic premise of a man in a dress is basically unchanged. 

There are multiple points where the characters try to save face and show they support women and do not intend to make light of the struggles transgender women face, particularly accusations of just being a man in women’s clothing. Most of these efforts come from Michael’s best friend, Jeff Slater (Jared David Michael Grant), the ignored voice of reason, which only makes these moments feel like a box that had to be checked rather than a genuine belief in their meaning. 

But that’s not to say the show should be canceled; these are points to keep in mind while watching, but at the end of the night it is a silly comedy. If anything, "Tootsie" can be listed as a minor example in a wider conversation around how Broadway treats women and marginalized groups in its productions and in the audience. 

Beyond trying to be the moral voice of the show, Jeff and the rest of the supporting cast steal the show, providing a number of moments that keep you laughing after leaving the theater.

In "Jeff Sums It Up" … well, Jeff does exactly that, recapping the absolute mess Michael gets himself into by the end of the first act, and underlines things will only get worse before the show ends. 

“This guy puts / Oh yeah! This guy is you, in case you were wondering / Puts on a dress and wig and heels and actually gets the part / And surprisingly everything goes very well! But then / And how do I say it? / You f—ed it up. / You really f—ed it up.”

Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), Michael’s ex-girlfriend, ties Jeff for the funniest character in the show. Living in a constant downward spiral, Sandy is in the same position as Michael as the curtains rise — struggling for work with the light quickly fading from her eyes, but she never gets the same sort of success Michael takes as Dorothy.

"What’s Gonna Happen" is a panic attack written to music and will be stuck in your head for the rest of the show and long after. Sandy frantically breaks down what she knows will happen at her next audition and has happened at every audition she’s tried out for.

"And here’s what happens / I’ll walk into the room / the gross fluorescent lighting is inviting as a tomb / And everyone smiles / They’ll say its good to see ya / But all I’ll see is judges / And they’ll all look like Scalia."

The biggest disappointment of the show is that Sandy doesn’t appear more. In the same manner Michael ends up taking a woman’s role, he takes up stage time that should have gone to Sandy.

Despite the missed opportunities with certain characters, the show is a guaranteed good time, providing a level of comedy that is hard to find in contemporary musical theater.

"Tootsie" plays at ASU Gammage until March 20, with tickets ranging between $6-$225.

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