Musical adaptation of the ’80s film has a lot up its sleeve

Something about Dustin Hoffman in a dress; maybe with Teri Garr” is about all I remember from the 1982 film Tootsie. But it does seem like the kind of property Broadway loves to turn into musicals, since the demographic that remembers it at all happens to be the same one with the money to attend Broadway shows. What’s interesting about this version, the touring production of which is now playing at the Denver Center’s Buell Theatre, is just how damn funny it is.

The original film is about an out-of-work actor whose main skill seems to be shooting himself in the foot by trying to direct the director in everything he does — including at auditions. When his ex-girlfriend is auditioning for a trashy soap opera part he knows she won’t get, he transforms himself into a woman and, surprise surprise, gets the part.

For the musical version, Robert Horn’s book changes the soap to a musical. In addition to the obvious benefits for a stage musical, the choice also adds a “musical within a musical” aspect to it that provides ample opportunity for lampooning the musical genre itself.

You’ve gotta love the character of Michael Dorsey — an actor so far up his own ass that he can’t shut up about his ideas long enough to avoid pissing off every casting panel he comes up against. Even his agent gives him the boot. Knowing he’ll never work in this town again as himself, he hits upon the gender-swap idea and pushes it to its eventual climax when all is revealed and his name is mud again.

Dorsey is played by Drew Becker, who’s got the right voice for speaking and singing as a woman paired with plenty of average-dude chops to make the contrast as funny as it needs to be. His roommate Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is the only one who knows about the scheme at first, and the interactions between these two fuel a lot of the funniest bits in the show. Also a failing artist, his number “Jeff Sums it Up” is one of the highlights of Act II, a consummate told-ya-so that Michael simply has to take since he certainly knew it’d all come tumbling down.

Ashley Alexandra as Julie

David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, constructed a number of very fast, very funny songs reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan. No one has more fun with these than Michael’s crazy ex-girlfriend Julie (Payton Reilly), whose self-flagellating rants sound like the inner rap of every down-on-her-luck actor.

Along with perpetuating his gender lie as Dorothy Michaels, Michael also has to negotiate some very rocky terrain with his co-star in the musical, Julie Nichols (Ashley Alexander). He quickly goes from inspiring her as an actor to falling in love with her, and when she starts to show interest as well, he’s confronted with the spectacularly awkward dilemma of falling for Julie as a man dressed as a woman as she falls for him as a woman (despite saying she’s not a lesbian). How do you sort out that kind of knot?

Meanwhile, he’s also got the ripped, dumb-ass male lead in the musical Max (Lukas James Miller) panting after him while he battles director Ron Carlisle (Adam du Plessis) for control of the show. There are also some great scenes with Michael’s agent Stan (Steve Brustien), and one of the funniest moments of unspoken words occurs when he finds out Michael is Dorothy.

1982 was a long time ago, and ideas about gender identity have changed a great deal since then. And while Horn’s book addresses some of these, there’s still that whole “guy dressed as a woman is more successful than a real woman” thing that could raise some hackles. On the other hand, it’s just a silly musical with a preposterous story about one of the world’s oldest comedic tropes: men in drag.

It all makes for a lot of laughs and a fun night at the theatre as Tootsie rolls through its first national tour.