Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Julieta Cervantes.
There is a lot of excellent news about Tootsie, the new musical by David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) and Robert Horn (13). The good news that this is the best Broadway try-out show we’ve had in Chicago in a very long time. The better news is that Horn’s book is vibrant with wonderful dialogue and jokes, almost all of which land. The great news is that Santino Fontana, who plays Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, has a mind-boggling voice in both roles, taking advantage of Yazbek’s mostly brilliant new songs. But for me, the really great news is that this new Tootsie ameliorates several significant problems that existed in the 1982 film.
Most of the humor in the original film derived from its basic premise: Michael Dorsey a desperate and out-of-work actor, auditions for a role as a woman and is hired. He then proceeds to turn the soap opera he is working for on its axis, asserting himself in ways none of the “other” actresses would dare, while teaching them to stand up for themselves. Because his Dorothy is so dynamic a character, two different men fall for her, allowing for several comic moments based on the this-was-funny-in-1982 possibility of two men kissing. More significantly, though, Dorsey falls for his co-star Julia, which (given that she thinks he is female) causes all sorts of conundrums.
Horn’s book almost utterly eradicates the latent homophobia from the story. (He leaves in a probably automatic line from one male lead after he discovers the truth about Dorothy, but that’s it.) His humor derives much more from the characters themselves, most of whom are fully fleshed out by the book and Yazbek’s lyrics. There are, for example, numerous lengthy scenes with Michael’s roommate, played by Andy Groteleuschen (Bill Murray in the film), which are not only very funny but which help us to appreciate their friendship far more than in the original.
Horn and Yazbek also have a ton of fun with the insecurities of Sandy (Teri Garr in the film), played by Sarah Stiles. Stiles is such an expressive comic actress and singer that we can’t help sympathizing with her, and her song is one of the best character songs in the musical. Another character who is inherently humorous is Max Van Horn. In the film, he is a lecherous older actor on the soap opera. Here, with Horn’s book resetting the location to Broadway, Max is a young studly performer with little understanding of acting at all and not a whole lot upstairs. The dumb jock trope is perhaps overplayed, but Horn wisely allows him some redemption.
Moving the setting to Broadway, where Dorothy wins a role in a musical, allows for some wonderful showcases for set designer David Rockwell, whose towering neon cityscape changes into the much more sedate dwellings of the actors; costume designer William Ivey Long, who gets to play with multiple quick-change costumes; and especially choreographer Denis Jones, whose wonderful work includes winky send-ups of some of Broadway’s famous styles. Director Scott Ellis feeds off of all of these designers (plus Donald Holder’s lighting and Brian Ronan’s sound) to create a show that absolutely sparkles. (And, yes, “Tootsie” does appear in the famous sparkling red dress.)
But it is the performances he gets from his actors that make the show work so well. Lilli Cooper is excellent as Julia (Jessica Lange in the movie), though she is not given much character help from her solo song, one of the few misses in this score: it’s long and serious and slow, and she needs something more upbeat and funny to endear her to the audience so that we care more that she could end up with Michael. Similarly, Reg Rogers as comic foil Ron Carlisle needs more to do; the film relied on Dabney Coleman’s dry and sexist comments for humor, but in the #metoo world, the character needs to be drawn differently to work and here Rogers just isn’t given enough to do. Julie Halston, perfectly cast as the feminist producer, could also use some more punch.
In any case, it is Fontana who bears the weight of the show squarely on his shoulders, and whether clothed in a dress or men’s clothing he pulls it off. Fontana (who might be familiar from his role in the television show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) is an instantly likable actor, which is critically necessary for Michael, a character who is selfish and out of control and who makes a really, really wrong decision out of desperation, not realizing or caring whom he might hurt in the process. Without Fontana’s genuine charm, Michael could come off very poorly. In the film, Dustin Hoffman uses his voice, for the most part, to temper the character’s caustic nature, and here Fontana is allowed to do so not only with his stellar vocal chops (how on Earth he manages to sing so beautifully as Dorothy is beyond me) but he also gets more of an opportunity to build the character, as he does throughout the show. The film’s Michael was all about reacting to the situation in which he placed himself; this one is more introspective and whole.
It is that level of introspection that really separates this musical from the movie, While it was enough, in 1983, for the character to be verbally contrite (“I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever have been as a man”), here Horn and Yazbek know that in today’s world that would never be enough. Several times throughout the show, Michael takes time to wonder what the heck he is doing, and in the end his contrition is more drawn out and thus more effective. (What is less effective is the song that Yazbek gives him near the end to show that contrition: like Julia’s earlier, it is slow and actually rather dull, a surprising miss in a show full of hits.)
Tootsie is not quite Broadway-ready yet. There are those twin character-revealing numbers that need work, as well as the underwhelming character of Ron Carlisle and the fact that the first act is a bit too long. Also, there is a bit of confusion about Dorothy’s fame: in the film, she was the ongoing star of a soap opera; people had ample opportunity to get to know her. Here she is supposed to have gained that level of instant recognition (and even rumors about a Tony nomination) before the play even opens. This seems unlikely at best, and ought to be dealt with by Horn. But these are, over all, minor concerns. Fontana’s performance, the hilarious book, and the songs that do work will easily make this show a hit. Maybe Dorothy can get that Tony after all.
Tootsie is now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph St, Chicago until Oct . Performance times vary; check the website at Victory Gardens Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Note for WCT: “theater” not “theatre,” capitalize “Black”; write out links and abbreviate date
Adapted by Anthony Whitaker
At: The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago
Tickets: 773-935-6875 or thedentheatre.com; $25
Runs through: September 29
By Karen Topham
One of the most endearing characters from L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories is the little patchwork girl. New American Folk Theatre’s production of Anthony Whitaker’s original story “Scraps” tells her tale in a bright, inventive way. Directed by Jamal Howard, the play combines The Patchwork Girl of Oz with several other books (notably those dealing with Ozma and the Land of Ev) and makes grand use of an ensemble of eight actors playing multiple roles.
Scraps (Brittney Brown), like Baum’s Tin Man (who makes an appearance), lacks a heart. In the book, she is a companion to the main character, Ojo the Unlucky (Preston Choi) in a search for a magical cure. Here, tired of her dull and repetitive life (shown in a brilliant opening), Scraps decides to (literally) go where the wind may take her to find out what she is “meant” to be.
Choi and the rest of the talented ensemble (including JD Caudill, Kelly Combs, Jeffrey Hoge, Charlie Irving, Vic Kuligosky, and Kelsey Shipley) are ultimately there to support Scraps on her journey, one which children may enjoy as much as adults. Many of the side characters here are also or have been in search of the real meanings in their own lives. Ojo is desperately in love with Prince Evring (Kuligoski), who wants to requite his love but feels trapped by royal obligations. Dorothy (Irving again), now a Princess of Oz, doesn’t quite understand what her life is supposed to amount to, but spends a great deal of it in an affair with Princess Ozma (Caudill), a transgender ruler (“part boy and part girl”) and who doesn’t quite know whether she is in the right place as a princess either. (Though the same sex relationships are not in the Oz books, Ozma’s back story is.) Even an enchanted book spends the play comically searching for the truth of its existence.
In the title role, Brown is entirely endearing. Despite spending the majority of the play with her face hidden behind a mask, her ebullience and energy shine through, making Scraps (whom some of the others consider a bit of a joke) a fully developed person in her own right, despite what she might believe. In someone else’s hands, the role might have become caricature, but Brown is careful to take Baum’s unusual creation as seriously Scraps takes herself.
With beautiful costumes by Zachary Ryan Allen and fun puppetry by Whitaker, along with Howard’s quick pacing and this cast’s clear joy of performance, Scraps is an enjoyable couple of hours. (The play’s first act could be somewhat truncated and the intermission eliminated to get it down to an hour and a half, which is probably what the material demands.) It’s unfortunate that, the night I saw it, very few people were in the audience. Inventive and fun, Scraps deserves better than the, um scraps left over from other shows. Its warm-hearted message, campy style, and strong acting make it a good choice for the entire family.
Word Count: 496
- You’ve talked about Indecent as a collaboration with Rebecca Taichman. What was the difference in process for this play than for the ones you wrote on your own?
- Indecent touches a lot of bases, among which are today’s hot-button issues like gender equality, homosexuality, immigration, and censorship. How do you see this play as adding to the conversation about these matters?
- I am writing this for the Windy City Times, Chicago’s largest LGBT publication. Your and your brother’s sexualities have really informed your work, and one finds gay issues at the core of several of your plays. Indecent, of course, has at its core the ‘obscenity’ of a lesbian love scene. Obviously we have come a long way on LGBT issues in both the theatre and the country over the years of your career, despite some backsliding during the Trump era; where do we still need to go?
- Indecent is also the first of your plays, I think, to deal so blatantly with anti-Semitism; though there is the use of the word “Kike” in The Long Christmas Ride Home, anti-semitism is not a major factor in that play. Obviously the first half of the 20th Century was rife with it; where do you think we are today as a nation and a world?
- This is, as far as I know, the first Chicago production of Indecent after the play’s east coast runs. Does bringing this show to Chicago present any interesting problems or opportunities?
- Along with Indecent, I believe there is a Chicago production of The Long Christmas Ride Home coming, and we have recently seen How I Learned to Drive at The Artistic Home. Further, you are having a staged reading of your new play Cressida on Top at the Goodman. Do these plays have any themes in common? What can we learn from seeing so much of your work in a short time?
- You like to play with the theatrical form. None of your plays with which I am familiar contains a traditional structure of beginning/middle/end with a plot following Freitag’s Triangle. The Long Christmas Ride Home plays with time as well as form, and traditionally-shaped scenes are few and far between in your work, which tends to resemble stream of consciousness more than classical structure. In this way, Indecent represents one of the most conventional plays you’ve written, though you obviously play with form here as well in your use of the theatre troupe. What led you to some of the decisions about form in this and other plays?
- Many of your plays, including Indecent, feature very specific ideas about music. In your mind, what is the role of music in theatrical productions? How critical is it?
- Tell me about Cressida On Top; I’m going to the reading but it comes after the deadline for this article. Does it too play with theatrical structure? Are its themes echoed elsewhere in your oeuvre? (And do you think it pretentious when people use words like oeuvre?)
Paula Vogel Interview
- At age 67, this represents the first time that I can actually travel to Chicago and work a little bit with the director and simultaneously work at the Goodman on a new play, so that’s pretty exciting for me. I no longer have an 80-hour-a-week day job that precludes me from traveling. I’ve been looking fwd to this a long time.
- (due to 80-hour work week), I became adept at writing quickly in intense bouts…that’s basically how I’ve written my plays
- It took me seven years to do the research, and then after every 4 or 5 drafts the director Rebecca Taichmann would do a reading or put on a workshop; I worked on it a long time; this is a large-scope piece. I’ve never had the ability to travel from theatre to theatre and do rewrites every night.
- It’s a different luxury for me (not having a “desk job”) (I ran two programs for 39 years)
- Gary Griffin (dir at VG) and I had a wonderful 24 hours together on Cape Cod exploring his ideas, talking about the play; (I look fwd to) walking into the room next weekend and seeing what has happened with it; it’s exciting
- Fortunately I’ve had a production at the Guthrie so I’ve now been able to experience completely different viewpoints…Every production is radically different. It’s really a director’s vision…When you’re doing a premiere it’s a conversation and I’m in the room making adjustments, but at this point there are about twenty productions that are going to be around the country. Everything changes. (Griffin) showed me the costume design, the set design, it’s never been done this way before.
- If one is a control freak one writes novels. But if one enjoys the party and the conversation, you basically become a playwright.
- It’s a honor, it’s a thrill to see other peoples’ visions.
- As of opening night, the playwright starts to say goodbye. We’re the first ones to leave the party, and there’s always a kind of mourning…but it’s very rewarding to know that (the play) has future lives.
- (how gay issues have informed your plays): It’s been an extremely big impact. Before I started daring to call myself a playwright, my brother was basically giving me books like Sexual Politics. In high school I used to go down to the Library of Congress and find out of print lesbian novels from the 1930s and 40s. I
- The play Indecent is about, i read that play when I was 22. It just floored me that a newlywed man, a heterosexual man, could write such a beautiful love scene between two women. Up to that point, I was a little depressed and concerned that the Lillian Hellman Children’s Hour was going to be the model of theatre and film in which a lesbian commits suicide or a lesbian is eternally alone and unhappy and her lover marries a man and lives happily ever after—that was kind of the model of the 1950s. Not a lot of plays about lesbians, but primarily unhappy relationships. ANd I wouldn’t call God of Vengeance particularly a happy play, but it basically says that the love between two women is a pure, passionate love.
- It’s not going to be the Last Queer Play; I think of queerness as a perspective, more than just simply creating characters I think of it as teaching me a kind of belief that identity is always fluid, that there is no such thing as stability in home or a family or oneself, that there is constant change and flux
- I’m very aware of something, when i was a kid i used to sneak into the butch femme bars in washington dc and it was just thrilling. All of these older women who if they saw me would say, oh honey go back home, but the sea change i am aware of is that now i am a lesbian or gay or queer in an older generational way and there is now all of this flux in terms of what sexual identity means…regardless of LGBQT, I think of heterosexuality now as a spectrum; i think it has just radically changed the words man and woman in the 20th century. And I think it’s impossible not to be aware of this at least on a subliminal level. EVen in the smallest town or the reddest state people have got to be aware of this; otherwise we would not be having so much of a backlash. I don’t think we would be as divided a country–fear had divided us–but the ability to redefine what gender is has created this fear.
- I wrote indecent aware f the rise in hate speech, aware of the bashing of immigration, deeply deeply concerned, and i thought there is an important reason to write this because this happened in our history. In a moment of fear there is no history, there’s just fear about the future and the present moment and history becomes completely erased.
- Look what happened and how do we stop it from happening again,
- If there is anything i am ardent about concerning my sexuality it is to not see our issues as separate from issues concerning people of color, economic issues, inequality, drinking water in flint, suppression of the press, separation of families at the border. There is a divide by fear mentality and we have to be united, we have to embrace a coalition. So the only thing I worry about at times is if younger people say I can get married now and OK I’m done. Like that’s the end f the conversation; that’s the beginning of the conversation. It’s not about our rights as gay, lesbian, trans, bi queers it’s about our rights as americans, it’s about human rights, and right now we’ve gone through an amazing period of fearmongering.
- I was naive not to realize that obama’s election would generate such a backlash, and when you are facing a backlash you have to form a coalition and ove fwd
- We’re in a terrible place in this country and i’m really happy that i get to make at least a little contribution and spend my nights and days thinking about forming community b/c that’s what theatremaking is, about making something where people come in as individuals but leave feeling as one as a part of the audience and hopefully the conversation goes on past the conversation in the lobby on the way out.
- I think as an artist you’re always saying why didn’t i go to law school? Why didn’t i do something more politically aware with my life, but at a crisis time like this i feel at least the ability to express some of the anger and fear and resolution in something like Cressida on top.
- It’s an exorcism of the Trump mentality. It’s my kind of channelling the don juan story and looking at women in the military in the future and what happens if we continue down this road with a pseudo President in the white house. It’s funny, very dark comedy. I just want not to be alone in feeling these things.
- I’m very much aware of the aging of my models and the need that i don’t become complacent. There is an even greater fluidity in gender now and that is pretty thrilling.
- Rebecca Taischmann called and said “Do you know of this play, God of Vengeance?” and I said “Oh my God, do I?!” and as we talked on the phone it started to take shape
- (about theatrical form) i think form is the meaning of a play. One of the difficulties of american culture is we have been taught to believe that the well made play, studio filmmaking and television is what it means to write a good structure. It’s a very limiting structure. When you look at other times and cultures there is a real diversity of how time travels in theatre and drama We tend to be very limited because i think a lot of critics believe that a play has to have a beginning middle and end, the protagonist should change over time, and they’re basically believing a form of drama that was formed in a Henry Ford production line. What we consider good form is actually a way to sell commercial products. We restrict what theatre can do.
- There are so many more ways to play with form and time together with an audience. It’s the one thing i really love about my work. I try to have a different plot structure for every play i write b/c if you stop and think about it, a beginning middle and end doesn’t begin to encapsulate how we feel when we age, how we process out dreams in the morning, how we remember things, the experience of watching children grow, and what that does to our sense of time. BME of a commercial tv or film really restricts the way people tell their stories.
- I was taught by a very brilliant man when I was 23 years old. I think the things that made jme start to want to write plays is that it wasn’t just paint by numbers and that every person has a story and that story demands a new structure for it, one original to it. I see biopics and I think well this is taking someone’s life and putting it into a structure that their lives transcended. Their lives were about breaking a BME. King, Obama, Steinem feel timeless.
- How do we tell this story? How is this story different from any other story? How do we feel together in the room as an audience by traveling through a different kind of time together. I love playwrights who do that. It’s a gift.
- I can’t see what’s in my plays; sort of like no one knows what their own fingerprints look like. But what I try to do each and every time I write is go through the cold sweat: how do i write a play i’ve never written before? How do I tear up everything I’ve ever done and go a far out there as I can and fall on my face.
- I discard a lot of ideas because they are too similar to what i’ve done before. I only want to write things that feel necessary.
- When we do something, when we feel can i make people see what i see and feel what i feel, there is always the hope that twenty years from now it would all seem outdated. If anyone had told me that HILTD would be more pertinent now than when i wrote it…i don’t know what the younger self would feel like. We should not still be in this time of continual assault.
- I also want to say that if you tell stories in new ways it had a better chance of breaking through the old ways of seeing something. We stop seeing the problems in front of us because they are continual. So how do I make someone stop and see something that is right in front of their face. If you tell me the story in a way that you’ve always told me the story, with a BME, I might not remember that story.
- I honestly didn’t think that as a culture, as a country, we would transform in the way that we look at women and girls not to mention boys. I’m hoping that the metoo movement is transformational, i really am. I’m hoping that the donald trump presidency becomes transformational in that way and that as we are experiencing this uptick in racism and hideous treatment of immigrants, women and children and that we experience a turning point. In my 60s I believe that it’s necessary to hope. It’s necessary to have resilience and resolve.