Pound for pound the most entertaining new musical on Broadway, any caveats to do with Tootsie are swept away by what has to be the funniest book since early Neil Simon. In a season when heavy-handed wisecracking masquerades as farce, Robert Horn writes quick, contemporary, character specific humor offering actors opportunity for both priceless silent reaction and prime physical expression.
Horn has both managed to change the source of Michael’s 1982 breakout role from one in a bad soap opera to being featured in a ludicrous musical and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – updated Julie’s reaction to Michael-as-Dorothy’s impulsive kiss without harming narrative or intention. The hero’s faux past, using plots of iconic plays, is a charming touch; his increasing revelations well grounded. Did I mention how much you’ll laugh? In my book, Mr. Horn deserves the Tony.
For the uninitiated, self-righteous actor Michael Dorsey has been thrown out of every show and audition in town for voicing objections that excavate motivation even from his role as a tomato. “People are intimidated by my work.”
His support system consists of roommate/bar manager Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen, deliciously low key) and friend/ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Styles, whose rabbity, self-pitying tantrums are both empathetic and hilarious). “My yoga teacher says I literally created a new position called downward spiral.” Why these two? “Sandy’s codependent and I live here,” Jeff quips.
Agent Stan Fields (a solid Michael McGrath) tries to explain the issue to his client. “They want a name.” “I’m a name,” Michael protests. “To the IRS and your mother…” Stan says dryly.
Desperate to work, Michael transforms himself (I wish they’d shown the process) into Dorothy Michaels. Despite being contentious during his/her audition and objections from Director Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers, especially fine demonstrating choreography), the actor is hired to play Juliet Capulet’s nurse in a musical aberration that purports to continue Shakespeare’s iconic tale. “On my back/In my bed/It was dark/I was dead,” Juliet sings before opening her eyes.
Both producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston in a role that might’ve been written for her droll style) and modern, independent lead Julie Nichols (the engaging Lilli Cooper) approve of Dorothy’s changing the show’s love interest from Juliet to the nurse, a middle aged woman coming into her own.
As reconceived, dim, young swain, Max Van Horn (a wonderfully vacuous John Behlmann) will fall in love with the nurse instead of her charge. Other adjustments follow. Van Horn follows suit in “real life,” pursuing the “smart, sturdy” Dorothy in an uproarious scene.
Off stage, Michael falls in love with Julie while she grows tenderly close to her new friend. When he approaches her as himself, however, Michael makes all the cocky mistakes that landed him where he is. She shuts him down. The chaos-causing truth must eventually come out, of course. We close hopeful.
Santino Fantana deserves every accolade. The actor sings well and differently in both incarnations. He takes on female mannerisms with brio rather than self-consciousness, seamlessly flipping to male galumphing. We can almost hear wheels screech and then turn when he’s stopped cold by the absurdity of an event. Ego and frustration are palpable, regret convincing.
Alas, David Yazbeck’s songs only intermittently live up to the quality of the book. A few are catchy, several even have explicit, tongue-twisting skill similar to Sondheim, but half take the easy route and end up innocuous. (Lyrics are better than tunes.) That a songwriter can be so good and not more self-demanding is a disappointment. I also don’t understand the need for an opening number that tells us what we’re going to see. It speaks of insecurity and keeps the story from a clean launch.
As it’s spoken, I don’t know whether to credit a number demonstrating and describing choreography to Yazbeck or Horn. This more elaborate interpretation of Robin Williams’ turn in La Cage aux Folles, is a scream: One-two-watch-me,/‘bounce, bounce, bounce ,bounce,/ Fosse arm, Fosse arm,/ restless leg yeah,/change the light bulb, change the light bulb/, danger danger, floor is lava,/ hot hot, lava hot, Julie Taymor, Julie Taymor,/ fidget spinner, and then lap dance… Also a hoot is Dorothy’s imagining the great roles she might play in a successful future. Other Choreography by Denis Jones arrives generic.
Director Scott Ellis may not do anything as ‘innovative’ as some of the most highly touted shows of the season (thank God), but his sense of comic timing is impeccable. Without this steady hand, the musical would’ve lurched. Subtle humor is adroit; pauses inspired. Exaggerated behavior never becomes too broad to be credible-in-context. Characters are singular and engaging.
David Rockwell’s Set creates a somewhat glitzy, old school city scape and believable manifestations of Michael and Jeff’s apartment as well as the bar. Posters for Dorothy’s aspirations are swell.
Much to my surprise, William Ivy Long’s Costumes are uniformly ugly and dated.
Photos by Michael Murphy
Opening: Santino Fontana and Company
Music/Lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Robert Horn
Directed by Scott Ellis
210 West 46th Street