Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Playing a Part in the Conversation: Re-Styled for Modern Times, 'Tootsie' Rolls Along Musically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

World Premiere Pre-Broadway Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru October 14

(Note: Seen at the first preview performance, as a paid attendee and longtime Broadway in Chicago subscriber.)

This isn't infallible--nor are my critical instincts overall--but I can usually get a pretty good sense of the quality of a new musical in its first 15 minutes.

Certainly, my overall judgment--and rating on a @@@@@ scale--is based on a show in full, and there are some that start strong and then fade, and others that greatly supersede a so-so beginning.

But having seen over 400 different musicals, with probably 75% of them reviewed on Seth Saith over the past 15 years--including many World Premieres heading to Broadway--there is something somewhat intangible about the best ones that just feels great, from the get-go.

So while I will candidly note that I saw Tootsie's third ever public performance, officially a preview at which there was a technical snafu, and appreciate that there will be ongoing adjustments made until the official Opening Night, probably throughout the Chicago run, as the show preps for Broadway next year and in previews there, I'm comfortable in conveying that the show begins by feeling like something special--and stays that way.

Over the past year, I've attended 11 world premiere musicals, including Tony-winner The Band's Visit on Broadway--David Yazbek wrote the music and lyrics for that show and Tootsie--as well as Pretty Woman, Trevor, The Cher Show, Heartbreak Hotel and Moulin Rouge!, and I liked Tootsie more than any except Moulin Rouge!, which I happened to catch on a trip to Boston.

Again with the caveat about seeing it early in previews, I don't perceive that Tootsie will quite rank with the very best musicals ever created, but it gets pretty much everything right.

And while I don't claim to be the utmost expert, my initial instincts have repeatedly been proven rather accurate--per commercial and critical success--in loving world premiering pre-Broadway musicals such as The Producers, Hairspray, Million Dollar Quartet, Kinky Boots, A Christmas Story, On Your Feet, War Paint and Come From Away. (I also really liked The Last Ship, though it would quickly sink on Broadway despite some award nominations.)

Even my middling review of Pretty Woman, based on seeing the very first preview in Chicago earlier this year, has largely been echoed by reviews of the Broadway run (in spite of which, it is doing great box office).

Funny thing about Tootsie, which, like the 1982 movie, is very funny, its opening number--no song titles are provided in the Playbill, and as you can see, no show photos are yet available--initially seemed like nothing special, but this sense was adroitly validated, and reversed, almost instantly.

I won't spell out many revelatory details, but the most obvious deviation from the movie is that out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (the fantastic Santino Fontana) passes himself off as Dorothy Michaels not in a daytime soap opera, but in a Broadway musical.

This change works quite well, as does basing the musical in the here and now, not the early '80s when there was considerably less sensitivity--not that it's anywhere near perfect now--about gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

The script by Robert Horn, under the direction of Scott Ellis, makes it quite clear that Michael is a straight man who assumes a woman's identity strictly to get work...and comes to realize it's dunderheaded decision, hurtful to those he cares about (and likely insulting to non-cisgender individuals, though this isn't acutely addressed).

As befits a show that needs to balance LOL humor with a good bit of delicacy, Yazbek again shows himself to be a shrewd songwriter.

Though Yazbek's The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Band's Visit--which I didn't quite love--were all good musicals, even on a first encounter I perceive Tootsie to be his best work yet.

Still, overtly hummable melodicism isn't Yazbek's foremost strength, and just three days after seeing Tootsie, I'm hard pressed to recall specific songs (made harder without a song list, though I did jot some notes).

As Sandy, Michael's platonic actress friend (played by Teri Garr in the movie), Sarah Stiles brilliantly delivers a 200mph ode to the neuroses of a constantly auditioning performer, while Fontana, terrifically overcoming the challenge of inhabiting two of Dustin Hoffman's more iconic roles, demonstrates great pipes in a song presumably titled "All In."

Lilli Cooper (Julie, the Jessica Lange part) also clearly possesses one of those remarkable Broadway-star voices, and all of the performances and production values are truly first-rate.

Even though a song like "Unstoppable"(??) isn't the best Act I closer one can imagine, the production number surrounding it, with choreography by Denis Jones, makes it a highlight.

As befits a show already booked into Broadway's Marquis Theatre next spring, Tootsie is bursting with great talent throughout its cast.

Beyond the aforementioned, Andy Grotelueschen is wonderful as Jeff, Michael's roommate and close friend, especially as he makes the role his own, not faux Bill Murray from the movie. He sings an early Act II song I'll let you encounter with surprise, but it's a delight.

Reg Rogers (as Ron Carlisle, the director of the show within the show), John Behlmann (Max, a star of the show who becomes enamored with Dorothy and serenades her hilariously on "This Thing"), Julie Halson (Rita, the show's producer) and Michael McGrath (Michael's agent Stan) are all demonstrably good.

Fontana does an excellent job both as Michael and Dorothy, but if there is a way for him--over time, let's be fair--to make the latter feel more his own incarnation and less overtly reminiscent of Hoffman's characterization (or Dana Carvey's Church Lady), I think it would help a little.

But as it stands quite early in its public gestation, Tootsie is a winner.

Although it comes at a point when I was tiring of (often creatively tepid) movie-to-musical adaptations, this show--with updated twists on the film's humorous conceit, fine songs, singing, dancing and acting, much delightful dialogue and even a nice sense of morality--really gets it right.

From the very beginning.

No comments: