When the current Broadway show series at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville was announced, we were promised a female-centric season. It kicked off with “My Fair Lady,” the classic tale of Eliza Doolittle, a street urchin who finds her voice and her bravado. It ends in May with “Hadestown,” a Tony Award-winning new show featuring a female writer and director. There was also a production “Chicago,” the long-running musical about two dueling female murderers in the limelight.
And then there’s “Tootsie,” onstage at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday (Jan. 22).
It follows the plot of the movie “Tootsie,” which starred Dustin Hoffman as hostile and broke actor Michael Dorsey. In an act of desperation, Dorsey auditions for a role on a soap opera while dressed in drag and assuming the name Dorothy Michaels. Dorothy is awarded the role, and the man beneath the wig must live with his assumed identity. The movie was a smash success and was only out-earned at the box office in 1983 by the Star Wars film “Return of the Jedi.”
With that kind of popularity, it makes sense that a nostalgic adaptation would launch. It debuted in Chicago before transferring to Broadway in 2019. The current production at the WAC is part of the first national tour. In the musical version, many of the characters are the same but Michael is instead cast in a new musical called “Juliet’s Curse.” It seeks to pick up where “Romeo and Juliet” ended – with a resurrected Juliet.
The play is destined to be dull, but Dorothy (played in the touring production by Drew Becker) asserts some creative license at the disgust of director Ron Carlisle (played by Adam du Plessis). It’s the same kind of insubordinate behavior that earned Michael a reputation as a difficult actor, but Dorothy’s suggestions win over the cast this time.
The Juliet of “Juliet’s Curse,” a woman named Julie (played by Ashley Alexandra), begins to confide in Dorothy. They share wine and stories and suddenly Julie captures the spot in Michael’s heart previously occupied by Sandy, his anxious, struggling actress girlfriend. This comes at the great amusement of Michael’s roommate Jeff (played by Jared David Michael Grant), the only person who knows Michael’s secret. We reach a breaking point when Michael – still dressed as Dorothy – gives Julie a kiss. Immediately, the stage piece marquee sign with Dorothy’s name on it suddenly glitches to spell only “DOOM.” The characters then spend the second act trying to untangle themselves from the mess Michael has created.
When: Jan. 18-22, 2023
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Tickets start at $41 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
That might sound complex or complicated to follow, but it’s not. Instead, “Tootsie” plays out as a frenetic farce with line after line of dialogue that felt borrowed from bad joke accounts on social media. For example, there’s a meme-able phrase about the “synonym rolls that grammar used to make.” It’s mildly funny as a meme, but good enough for a Broadway musical, as “Tootsie” also has a “grammar = grandma” joke. The show also asks characters to ponder if Julie’s ex has gone to Portland, Maine, or Portland, OreGONE! And Romeo’s brother Max (played by Matthew Rella) is so daft he pronounces the name of Shakespeare’s character like “Rome-O,” like the city in Italy with an ‘O’ tacked onto the end. It was a joke that was deemed so good the script tried it again a second time.
The songs didn’t elevate beyond those kinds of lines, either. Max, who realizes he’s falling for Dorothy, sings “She’s made me an actor / She’s built like a tractor.”
Not all shows can be Shakespeare.
But, to be fair, that’s not the direction nor aspiration of this show (or the show within the show). It’s a love letter to theater musicals, with several winking nods to the stresses and surprises of showbiz. It’s a backstage pass to auditions and rehearsals and the creative process. And like many Broadway staples, it features inventive set pieces and dance interludes that bring the magic of the theater to local audiences.
Speaking of local audiences, “Tootsie” arrives as the Arkansas state legislature ponders whether drag shows should be seen by minors. The proposed legislation caused some to wonder if gender-bending theater shows might get caught in such rules. It’s beyond my abilities to determine whether or not the current production at the WAC would broach new restrictions against shows appealing to “prurient” interests.
But “Tootsie” feels very innocuous right now, something it might not have 41 years ago when it debuted in movie form. It might be an “R”-rated stage show – but mostly because of Jeff’s humorous takedown song billed as “Jeff Sums it Up” where Jeff repeats to Michael that he’s … “messed” it up. But he doesn’t use “messed.”
So while it might not feature the full-force girl-power narrative of other shows within the Broadway series this year, its role shouldn’t be confused. If you liked the movie, I suspect you’ll like the stage show, too. And if you like sitcom-style, joke-a-minute antics, you’ll likely find Dorothy and the musical charming.
But you might not find Michael charming. He’s kind of a jerk, something Dorothy helps all of us – including Michael – learn. Maybe we need a Dorothy more than we know.