Adaptors and revivors have had their hands full this season with gender politics. We watched them try but fail to finesse the notoriously sexist Kiss Me, Kate, surprisingly and subtly succeed with My Fair Lady, and, now, totally triumph with Tootsie. This delightful musical comedy based on the beloved movie, manages to make the story of a man dressing up as a woman in order to get a job not only politically viable but wise. The old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — especially these days, and especially if they’re high heels — turns out to be true.
The show begins with one of those groanably awful production numbers, and when a guy in the cast walks out for all the reasons we were just thinking, we realize that we’ve been watching a parody. Fooling everybody is, after all, the show’s theme (not to mention theater’s basic premise), so the show has begun perfectly.
The guy is Michael Dorsey, an actor so difficult, so arrogant that nobody will hire him. With his 40th birthday approaching, he’s desperate for a job and concocts a scheme to dress up as a middle-aged woman (“Faye Dunaway as a gym coach”) named Dorothy Michaels to audition for the role of the nurse in some misbegotten musical called Juliet’s Curse — and he lands the part. In the course of rehearsals, he falls in love with the leading lady (the lovely and fine-voiced Lilli Cooper), who in turn finds herself loving the kind but staunch feminist Dorothy Michaels. As does Max, the leading man (John Behlmann, who does astounding stupidity to perfection).
The awful musical Juliet’s Curse is being directed by an awful creature named Reg Rogers (Ron Carlisle — hilariously pompadoured), and his choreography (“Fosse hands, Fosse hands … ”) is endlessly funny (the real choreographer, Denis Jones, must have had the time of his life with these numbers). Great moment: Reg throws his arm across an actress’ back, saying, “I’m moving you not touching you.”
Meanwhile, real life continues. Back at his apartment, Michael’s roommate Jeff (the fabulously funny and ironical Andy Grotelueschen) and Michael’s neurotic ex, Sandy (Sarah Stiles, who can throw a lovable and sensational neurotic fit), and Michael’s agent (Michael McGrath) fill Michael’s scenes that alternate with his Dorothy scenes. Under Scott Ellis’ smart direction — with long, silent pauses, slow takes, sighs, and blank stares — timing proves, once again, to be everything.
Santino Fontana is terrific as both Michael and Dorothy; he alternates between a baritone speaking voice and a falsetto speaking/singing voice as Dorothy, and he does it all with modesty and wryness, and in high heels if not backward. The music is wonderfully varied — a patter song, a love ballad, a chorus line number — and the lyrics by Daavid Yazbek are both clever and, best of all, absolutely intelligible, so none of the wit is wasted. Robert Horn wrote the excellent book, with solid character development plus insider theater jokes. Tootsie earns its 11 Tony Award nominations.
At the Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St., New York.