Men have been dressing up in women’s clothing, for comic effect on stage and in the movies, about as long as those media have existed. In 1982, a committee of writers that included Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal kept that tradition alive with a film called Tootsie. It certainly earned its laughs, but it also had something to say, exploring the nature of and differences between the genders.
Four seasons ago, as Broadway continued its often lazy trend of cannibalizing Hollywood, composer-lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Robert Horn musicalized Tootsie in an underwhelming production that ran a mere eight-and-a-half months in New York. But such is the thirst on the road for familiar titles that Tootsie generated a national tour — albeit non-union — which plays this week at the Kravis Center’s Dreyfoos Hall.
Thanks largely to the original material, the stage Tootsie is diverting enough entertainment, though distinctly lacking in inspiration. Sitcom veteran Horn has added some snappy one-liners, for which he won one of the show’s two Tony Awards, but Yazbek, who wrote the scores to The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and A Band’s Visit, does subpar work here.
They started with a terrific central character in Michael Dorsey, a cantankerous perfectionist actor, such a pain in the ass to directors that he is usually fired mid-rehearsals if hired at all. Famously portrayed in the movie by Dustin Hoffman — who also has a reputation for being difficult — Dorsey is played very credibly here by Drew Becker, whose program bio credits were distressingly slim.
The show’s chief change from the movie is turning the job Michael lands into a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, rather than a hospital-themed TV soap opera. But he still gets the gig by disguising himself as Dorothy Michaels, a tall, strapping actress cast now as Juliet’s nurse. Yet even with a wig, dress and fake boobs, Michael cannot resist the urge to meddle with the script. And when his ad libs make the show-within-the-show better, his role grows in importance and the title changes from Juliet’s Curse to Juliet’s Nurse.
Not unlike a Shakespearean comedy, Michael’s gender-switch disguise triggers a series of unexpected romantic entanglements. The actress playing Juliet (Ashley Alexandra) finds herself attracted to Dorothy and vice versa. The same goes for Max Van Horn (Matthew Rella), a reality TV star and complete doofus, cast as the brother of Romeo (who he pronounces as “Rome-Oh.”)
An empowered woman like Dorothy, you see, is an absolute aphrodisiac. And so it goes, as Michael learns first-hand the plight of women and, as a result, how to be a more caring, tolerant man. Hey, as musicals go, that is a fairly trenchant message.
Becker excels at the balancing act of the dual roles of Michael and Dorothy, changing demeanors, vocal registers and clothes, often right in front of our eyes. He sings well, particularly on his two power solos, Dorothy’s audition number (“I Won’t Let You Down”) and the first act finale (“Unstoppable.”)
Tootsie is Becker’s show, but he gets first-rate support from some scenery-chewing secondary cast members. Jared David Michael Grant brims with comic high energy as Michael’s roommate, who gets to tell him “I-told-you-so” as the Dorothy scheme starts to implode. Payton Reilly is a bit screechy, but funny, as Michael’s ex-girlfriend and actress wannabe, while Rella keeps earning guffaws with Max’s one-joke stupidity. In distinct contrast to these comic second bananas, Alexandra’s Julie/Juliet is a low-key audience empathy magnet with a lovely singing voice.
Christine Peters devised clever fold-out and reversible sets, based on David Rockwell’s original Broadway designs, while dependable William Ivey Long provides lots of flashy costumes, including Dorothy’s iconic red sequined gown.
The tour is staged by Dave Solomon, based on Scott Ellis’s original direction, with choreography by Denis Jones. Jones is called on to create generic, ho-hum dances for the embryonic Juliet’s Curse. Unfortunately, the production numbers don’t get much better when the plot says the show’s fate has turned around.
TOOTSIE, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sun., Feb. 12. $31-$87. 561-832-7469, www.kravis.org.