Just as life seemed to be returning to normal at performing arts organizations and venues across the region, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 arrived, forcing cast changes and cancellations and shaking the confidence of already hesitant audiences.
This was certainly the case at the Broward Center on the opening night of “Tootsie.” The cavernous Au Rene Theater with more than 2,500 seats appeared to be less than half full as the lights dimmed and the pit orchestra sounded the first notes of the Broadway hit’s overture.
Prior to the pandemic, the Broadway in Fort Lauderdale series regularly sold-out 10-day runs of touring musicals, and despite strong COVID-19 protocols for performers and ticket holders (proof of negative test or vaccination), audiences don’t seem to be rushing back to the theater.
That’s a shame because “Tootsie” is a fast-paced, entertaining comedy with a tuneful score and lots of clever wisecracks (and F-bombs, too) that appeal across demographics.
The show, with a score by David Yazbek and book by Robert Horn, follows a popular formula on Broadway for the past couple of decades — secure the rights to a well-known film (often adapted from novels), tweak the story a little or a lot, and throw in splashy chorus numbers. It worked for “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “The Color Purple,” “Rocky,” “Newsies,” “9 to 5,” “Hairspray,” “Kinky Boots” and “Mean Girls” to name just a few.
In this version, Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker) is a frustrated “thespian” whose high ideals and strong opinions about his craft have left him unpopular with directors and ultimately unemployable. While coaching his girlfriend Sandy (Payton Reilly) for an audition for a new Broadway musical, he decides to pursue the role himself — disguised as a woman, “Dorothy Michaels.”
From there, the plot roughly follows the same course as the 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Michael finds himself attracted to his co-star Julie (Ashley Alexandra), but cannot pursue her as Dorothy. An inadvertent kiss from Dorothy confuses their relationship, while the male co-star Max (a ripped Lukas James Miller), a lovestruck former reality competition winner, pursues Dorothy’s affections.
Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant), a frustrated playwright and Michael’s roommate, warned him early on, “In what world does this end well?” Let’s just say there has to be a happy ending on Broadway, even if it takes more than 20 musical numbers and nearly two and a half hours to get there.
The setting is contemporary, rather than the early ‘80s, and confronts current issues of gender discrimination and identity that the LGBT community has raised with Hollywood in particular (equity for women, straight actors playing gay or transgender).
The mostly young non-equity cast made up for experience with their boundless energy, projecting confidence to the further corners of the theater and easily executing Denis Jones’ original choreography. Yazbek’s likable score is more reminiscent of “The Full Monty” than his 2018 Tony Award-winning score to “The Band’s Visit.” Conductor Andrew David Sotomayor was nearly as fun to watch as the performers on the stage as he guided the relatively large pit band, including five reed and brass players.
There are still plenty of tickets available throughout the run and “Tootsie” is worth a trip to the Broward Center, if you are comfortable. Just don’t forget your vaccination cards and masks.
“Tootsie” plays through Jan. 23 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $35 at BrowardCenter.org.