🎭 I Shouldn’t Be Laughing | “Tootsie” @ Broadway in Hollywood

Tootsie (Broadway in Hollywood)Whew! It’s been a week, hasn’t it. I feel more exhausted than an actor trying to juggle pretending to be someone whom I’m not who is then trying to be someone who they are not while not letting out a secret… well, more on that in a minute. But I have been really busy, so please excuse the lateness of these writeups. They took a back seat to some other projects this week — working up updates to my highway pages,  and continued new work on getting a new podcast about highways off the ground. Combine that with a full time job, caretaking for my wife who is still down after her accident, and an ear infection, and … whew!

In any case, let’s talk about Tootsie, which is the current production of  Broadway in Hollywood (FB) at the Dolby Theatre. We saw it last Saturday, and I’m really conflicted in my reaction.  On the one hand, it was extremely funny with great comic timing. On the other hand, it is an attempt to bring 1980’s attitudes about men and women to a context 40 years later, and that just doesn’t work. Add to that the fact that this is a non-Equity tour (with the labor issues related thereto): yes, it gives talented actors their start, but it also treats them like second class citizens. Hmm, like women in a professional field. As I said, conflicted.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Tootsie is based on a 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, with a screenplay adapted by Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson, Elaine May and Murray Schisgal from a story by Gelbart and Don McGuire. The basic premise is: perfectionist male actor, who is so annoying he has been blackballed by most directors, pretends to be a woman in order to get an acting job. In doing so, he takes a job away from his actress best-friend, and turns what is a crappy soap-opera into a smash success with his suggestions for improvement. He falls in love with the leading lady of the soap-opera (who is having an affair with the director), and has a male leading man fall in love with him. When the secret comes out, then (as they say) hijinks ensue.

This was really funny stuff in the 1980s folks. I mean that this was the second most profitable film of 1982, and was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture. In 1998, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. You can just imagine a producer thinking, 20 years later: This would be great on Broadway!

But the times, as Bob Dylan sang, are a changin’. The whole schtick of man dressing as women for humor isn’t as funny as it once was. Show real trans folk. That’s fine. Show real stories of drag queens, as serious drag queens (cough, Kinky Boots, cough, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie), OK. But dress as a woman for humor (as we saw in My Fair Lady or as is likely in the upcoming new version of Some Like It Hot), and it doesn’t work. I’ll note there are similar problems with playing on old and tired gay stereotypes — how well would a La Cage revival work these days. Perhaps this is why we’re hearing so little about Mrs. Doubtfire, currently on Broadway. It plays up the man dressed as woman for humor, and that just doesn’t fly. (Hmmm, he wondered, why there are so few shows that find humor in a woman dressing as a man? I can only think of two — both Shakespeare — and the humor is situational. Victor Victoria, perhaps? But I digress).

Now, add to this the problems related to #MeToo, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the growing concern about men not listening to the voices of women (as well as a man taking a woman’s job). You have to keep saying to yourself: What were these producers thinking smoking?

Yet with all these problems, Tootsie came to Broadway and found some measure of success. It was nominated for a slew of Tony awards and won two (including Best Book of a Musical). It beat out Beetlejuice, which was better and far less problematic. Yet problems remain.

To their credit, the new book by Robert Horn makes some significant changes. It moves the milieu from New York and the soap opera scene to Broadway. Now the actor (Michael Dorsey) is finding failure with Broadway directors, and so becomes an actress (Dorothy Michaels) in a successful new Broadway production. This makes it more accessible, and adds to the in-jokes that only those in the Broadway profession would get. But it works better on stage. Horn also explicitly acknowledges the problems with what Michael is doing: there is gnashing and wailing about how this is wrong, followed by jokes about how he’ll get paid less. There are scenes calling out Michael for mansplaining, while there are no remarks about the hidden-in-full-view Michael as Dorothy mansplaining away, and getting heard while women staffers are ignored.

So there are loads and loads of problems remaining in the book. And yet … I laughed. Especially in the second act, where Michael’s subterfuge is uncovered, and there are some wonderful comic timing scenes taking place. This thing is laugh out loud funny, while you’re thinking at the same time that it is so wrong. Just like Jackass. This is likely why it won best book: if the book can make you laugh at something that is patently so wrong these days.

While we’re talking book, we mustn’t forget this is a musical. In this case, the music and lyrics are by David Yazbek, The songs are very funny, but what kept bothering me is how much they sounded like Yazbek’s other work. I kept hearing hints of The Band’s Visit  or Women on the Verge and even The Full Monty. There are some particular riffs and styles that Yazbek likes, and they seem to have recycled themselves here. It was distracting, and Yazbek needs to work better on getting his musicals to not sound so much … like Yazbek-stereotypes.

The production was directed by Dave Solomon; Scott Ellis was the original Broadway director. Broadway choreography was by Denis Jones. Buried in the small print were the key local folks: Augustine Ubannwa Asst. Director and Chip Abbott Associate Choreographer. All are members of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. I always have trouble telling direction from performance (which is how it should be), but the comic aspects of the direction were strong. Dancing was a bit weaker: there wasn’t anything that particular stands out in my mind a week after the performance.

Let’s turn to the performances, but before we do: When this production was originally booked for Broadway in Hollywood (back in the pre-pandemic days), it was to be an Equity tour, with Equity actors, and Equity pay scales, and Equity health insurance and such. But, on the verge of going out, it was recast and went out as a non-Equity tour. So note: Union directors and choreographers, union scenic artists, union back and front of house, but non-union actors. This is not meant as a disparagement of the actors, who do a remarkable job (as I’ll describe below). But it is a ding to the producers, who are getting away with paying them less and providing fewer benefits (pay breakdown) and worse working conditions. This has led to increased efforts from Equity to go after the non-Union tours. In particular, they are going after the touring companies that often have union and non-union versions, feeding back into the same pockets. If you ever want a key difference between Broadway in Hollywood and Center Theatre Group: CTG only does Equity productions on the main stages (and CTG does show production, not just booking). BIH books both Equity and non-Equity productions. Rant over, and I will say that I do still love Broadway in Hollywood — their subscriber support folks are the greatest (more on that later). I just wish the talent got treated as well, and part of that is encouraging the industry to do Equity tours.

Despite being young, the cast was excellent — drawing heavily from other non-Equity tours and the strong regional theatre markets. In the lead position was Drew Becker Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels . Becker was remarkable in the role, with great comic timing and performing chops. He captured both the masculine and the feminine sides well, and had a strong singing voice. But as I noted, what really impressed me was his comedy. There were times where he said everything with a simple facial expression, a pause, or a simple reaction. To this untrained eye, that goes beyond the direction to bringing the actor’s chops to the role. I hope others see it.

The other key people in Michael’s direct sphere of influence were Payton Reilly Sandy Lester and Jared David Michael Grant Jeff Slater. Reilly’s role is really written more as comic relief, and we don’t see as much of her as we would like. She has a recurring song motif that is extremely funny and self-deprecating (even if it sounds like it could be plopped down in Women on the Verge). Reilly handles this well with great comic timing. Grant gets to play the lovable schlub friend — and you wouldn’t expect such a strong performance for that character. But Grant excels at the comedy — again, he’s a master of the timing and the look and the reaction. The scenes with him, Reilly, and Becker are just masterpieces. Watching their performances, you wouldn’t realize that these are relatively new actors — they are that strong in their roles.

Next we have the key people in Dorothy Michael’s stage life: Ashley Alexander Julie Nichols and Lukas James Miller Max Van Horn.  Alexander (who also appears to go by Ashley Seldon) has a remarkably strong voice and come across as a credible actor in her role. She gets less opportunity to play the role for the comic side. Miller, on the other hand, is heavily comedy — especially in the second act. The scene where he comes and hits on Dorothy is priceless, but his introductory scenes are strong as well.

In supporting roles we have Kathy Halenda Rita Marshall; Steve Brustien Stan Fields and Adam du Plessis Ron Carlisle.  All are written and played with appropriate stereotypes in mind. Halenda is the aging woman producer who wants to champion other women; Brustien is the typical agent; and du Plessis is the over-egoed director. The actors play them well.

Rounding out the cast in the ensemble and smaller named parts as noted are: Leyla Ali Gone Female Trio, Connor Allston Stuart, Darius Aushay, Michael Bingham, Kyra Christopher, Delaney Gold Gone Female Trio, Maverick Hu, Dominique Kempf Suzie, Gone Female Trio, Marquez Linder, Lucy Panush, Alec Ruiz Carl, and Stefanie Renee Salyers. Swings are Lexi Baldachino Dance Captain, and Ashton Lambert Asst. Dance Captain. The ensemble was strong, performing with spirit and energy, and seeming to enjoy what they were doing.

Music was provided by an orchestra under Andrea Grody Supervising Music Director and Andrew David Sotomayor Music Director The orchestra consisted of: Richard Mitchell Alto Sax, Flute, Piccolo, Recorder; Sean Franz Tenor Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Soprano Sax; Aaron Smith and Javier Gonzalez Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Charlie Morillas Trombone; Chris Thigpen Bass (Acoustic/Electric); Brian LaFontaine Guitar (Electric / Acoustic / Mandolin); Carl Thomson Drums / Percussion; Adam McDonald Keyboard 1; and Mary Ekler Keyboard 2. Other music credits: Dean Sharenow Music Supervisor; Talitha Fehr Music Coordinator; Eric Heinly Music Contractor; Billy Jay Stein and Iro Iida (for Strange Cranium Productions Inc) Electronic Music Design; David Chase Dance Arrangements; and Simon Hale Orchestrations.

Lastly, we turn to the production team, starting with the lead designers. Overall, the scenic design was suitable, although there were sound problems that left the distinct impression that some speakers were not working (because the music sounded off to one side). The set was relatively compact, with elements that opened up to create Michael Dorsey’s apartment, and that when closed became a generic New York skyline. My biggest complaint with the set design was more of a tour set design issue: there was a large frame around the set that would create site line problems for anyone sitting off to the far side. That’s bad design: even for a tour, sets should be designed to be clear and visible to all. The scenic design team consisted of: David Rockwell Original Scenic Design; Christine Peters Tour Scenic Design; William Ivey Long Costume Design; Christopher Vergara Costume Coordinator; Donald Holder Lighting Design; Brian Ronan Sound Design; Paul Huntley Hair & Wig Design; and Angelina Avallone Make-Up Design.  One costume/make-up note: The quick changes for Drew Becker (Michael Dorsey) were impressive, including changing the nail polish!

Rounding out the production team were: Binder Casting Casting; Andrew Terlizzi Company Manager; Suzayn Mackenzie-Roy Production Stage Manager; Brianna Thompson Asst Stage Manager; Brian Schrader General Manager; Heather Chockley Production Management. The tour manager was Troika Entertainment.

I mentioned earlier about the superb customer service from the Broadway in Hollywood subscription team. My wife currently is in a wheelchair, which requires handicapped seating. When I booked the show we were not in accessible seats; I had changed the tickets, but hadn’t realized they weren’t accessible either. Day of the show, the subscription folks in the box office got us changed to wheelchair accessible seats (in the orchestra, no less) without any muss. They may book non-union tours, but I still think Broadway in Hollywood is great!

Tootsie continues at the Dolby Theatre for Broadway in Hollywood (FB) until May 15. Tickets are available through the BIH box office (they have specials for $39). Discount tickets may be available through GoldstarTootsie goes next to the Segerstrom in Orange County.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.

Upcoming Shows:

For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. Looking further into 2022: May brings Hadestown at at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). June will see Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Pretty Woman at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), as well as Tom Paxon at McCabes plus as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as we have the energy for. July brings Moulin Rouge at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) [Pantages], Dear Evan Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Newsies at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and Freestyle Love Supreme back at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). August is quieter, with just The Prom at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly (for this look ahead), September brings Oklahoma the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Jagged Little Pill at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), although they are on the same day so I’ll be shifting one show. September may also bring Andrew Lippa’s version of The Wild Party at the Morgan Wixson Theatre. This was a show I had been planning to see before the COVID shutdown, so I’m putting it in the “part of our subscriptions” list. There may also be some Hollywood Bowl stuff, depending on how my wife is doing.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarOn Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!

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