“Unstoppable” isn’t just an extravagant song-and-dance number in “Tootsie,” but also the perfect word to describe the hit musical comedy’s success since it was first adapted from the 1982 film of the same name starring Dustin Hoffman.
Its prominence continues as the State Theatre in New Brunswick holds its own weekend of “Tootsie” performances. Directed by Dave Solomon, the cast performed the musical (music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Robert Horn) to a packed crowd on Nov. 4, with shows continuing throughout the weekend.
The musical is a commentary on the hardships of being a woman, especially one looking to rise in the ranks to achieve a dream. Ironically enough, the message is conveyed through a man pretending to be a woman.
Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker) is a 40-year-old actor who has gained the reputation of being highly “unmanageable,” getting fired (or failing to get hired in the first place) because of his perfectionism and entitlement. That is, until he hears of a part his friend Sandy (Payton Reilly) is auditioning for in a play titled “Juliet’s Curse.”
Desperate to find work, Michael disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels and tries out for the role himself. As Dorothy, Michael is given the role after leaving a lasting impression during the audition. From there, he works closely alongside his co-star, Julie (Ashley Alexandra), to turn the play from “Juliet’s Curse” to “Juliet’s Nurse,” a production that empowers women by revolving around two female characters — one who doesn’t need a romantic relationship with a man to be happy in life, and one deemed by society as less conventionally attractive and past her prime but still the object of a young man’s affection.
As one can imagine, difficulty in maintaining this mirage is what sets the story in motion as love, friendships and ambition cloud what initially seemed to be a clever plan.
Michael’s double identity is central to the feminist theme at the heart of “Tootsie.” Dorothy is comparable to Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire in both looks and attitude — a kind and understanding yet bold and outspoken woman who is unafraid to do what is necessary to get what she wants, whether that means speaking up to men in positions of authority or turning a play inside out to make herself the star. Dorothy is an inspiration and easy to love, both by the characters who join her onstage as well as by the audience.
This is in direct contrast to Michael, through whom Horn emphasizes the secondary theme of the struggles that actors face in a cutthroat industry. His privileged, arrogant mindset and desperation to find work, even if that means fooling those closest to him, leaves one wishing Becker could portray Dorothy at all times. The production is a testament to Becker’s ability to play two characters of different extremes, to the point that he has the audience hating one and loving the other.
These themes are carried out through a powerful script and a set of songs that effectively move the story forward, the standout being “I Won’t Let You Down.” Singing as Dorothy for the first time, Becker showed off the high side of his vocal range with this heartwarming tune.
Overall, the script was so infused with humor that it gave the audience little time to process each joke, except for the best and most comedic moments, after which the cast — by necessity — left enough time for the laughter that filled the room to die down.
Aside from its hilarity, what made “Tootsie” so much fun was its interactive set, which the cast swiftly changed between scenes, without distracting the audience. Whether it was the lit-up buildings of New York, or the city’s green parks and apartment complexes, the set design and use of props was detailed and made the story come to life much more, giving the characters’ experiences and interactions a realistic touch.
But even without its slamming doors and scenic backdrops, “Tootsie” is a musical comedy to be savored, for its message on the gender gap and the humorous yet striking way it presents it.
Remaining performances of “Tootsie” take place at the State Theatre in New Brunswick at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 and 2 p.m. Nov. 6. Visit stnj.org.
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