A lively ‘Tootsie’ the musical at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theater

The enthusiasm and talent exhibited by the cast is unquestionable, and they’re absolutely charming as wait staff.

But first, dinner. Guests are advised to arrive between 6:00 and 6:15 for dinner, as the food is cleared away at 7:20. Dinner is well-prepared. A served salad with pre-poured dressing arrives at the table in advance of your invitation to the main meal. Dinner is served cafeteria-style and features six side dishes and three entree items, fish, chicken, and ham. Your choice of one of four desserts is brought to your table, along with remarkably good coffee. The special cocktails are a treat — my companion enjoys the frozen Juliet’s Curse, while I have a refreshing white sangria. All food is cleared in preparation for the actors to begin the performance promptly at 8 PM.

From the theater’s website: “It’s customary to tip 15% of your ticket price and bar tab at a dinner theatre, but many of our patrons tip a lot more than that (bless their gracious hearts). We also like to let guests know before they arrive that gratuity cannot be put on a credit card.” That indicated to me that I ought to bring cash. The tipping expectations are explained preshow as well, though citing a figure of 18% of ticket and bar tab totals, and no mention of cash vs. card.

Jarod Glou as Dorothy Michaels in ‘Tootsie.’ Photo courtesy of Way Off Broadway.

Many full-grown adults have no reason to remember the movie Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman, which had the third-highest U.S. movie gross in 1982. In a nutshell, an out-of-work actor dresses as a woman hoping to land a job, does so, and takes the production by storm.

For the stage adaptation, the role is that of a well-known character in an unheard-of musical sequel to perhaps the best-known Shakespearian play. Despite this, there is a surprising dearth of Shakespearian jokes or references. Some numbers seem to satirize the quirks of the Traditional Broadway Musical and are amusing if one understands them as satire. Billed as “New York City, Present Day,” the show doesn’t look contemporary. No cellphones, no internet, no existential dread, no vaping, no gamer culture. In a nod to Gen Z sensibilities, Will VanDeVenter gives a presence to non-binarism in the cast, and they are subtly effective.

A dude in a dress isn’t automatically comedic, so the script has some work to do. Should it say something about the pains Michael goes through to be believable as a woman? Or the everyday masking women need to do to get along in a world stacked against them? Certainly, it should, but it doesn’t. Some of the sequences are witty. Many songs have clever lyrics. Other songs fall flat, as do swaths of dialogue. It’s theoretically possible to squeeze a good musical comedy from mediocre source material (I can’t think of an example), but this isn’t it. The show seems overstuffed with plot-irrelevant, un-hummable songs. The middle is too long and the ending too abrupt. There are wonderful moments, and some hilarity, but even judicious editing wouldn’t remove the basic premise. I find the premise problematic. Brin Solomon and Christian Lewis articulate some of the disturbing points. Beyond that, producing the show during Pride Month seems a questionable choice.

A few songs are terrific. “What’s Gonna Happen” in Act I is one of these. Act II begins with “Jeff Sums It Up,” which is the high point of the show from my perspective. Sometimes the lyrics are better than the songs, with “The Most Important Night of My Life” being an emblematic example.

Music Director Tina Marie Bruley delivers clear ensemble vocals for the production, though the recorded music backing up the show’s live singing occasionally overpowers the voices of the performers. Bill Kiska’s set design features multipurpose pieces, several of which are not quite in the right spot when the curtain drops — repeatedly. Some rolling props used in “Unstoppable” are noisy enough to interfere with the vocals. Director/Set Designer/ Co-Costumer Bill Kiska is also the executive producer and CEO of Way Off Broadway. Lighting design is by Justin M. Kiska, theatrical producer and novelist who also performs in the show. Choreography is by Mallory Coombs. The dances are engaging and executable, and everyone shines in them. The versatile ensemble, three of whom perform for the first time with WOB, is Christopher DeOCampo, Grace Guzman, Jonah Milam, Will Van DeVenter, Olivia Wynne, Wil Spaeth, and Shelby Young. They pop in and out of many costumes, gliding elegantly through large dance numbers.

TOP: Bob Gudauskas as Jeff Slater, Lizzie Bartlett as Sandy Lester, and Jarod Glou as Michael Dorsey; ABOVE: Shelby Young as Suzie, Megan Elizabeth West as Rita Marshall, Wil Spaeth as Stuart, Robert Howard as Ron Carlisle, and Jarod Glou as Dorothy Michaels, in ‘Tootsie.’ Photos courtesy of Way Off Broadway.

Jarod Glou as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, the main character, is much more likable as Dorothy than as Michael, which is the salient point of the piece. Because Glou does such a good job convincing us of Michael’s basic despicability, it’s tough rooting for him as Dorothy. The character journey is inadequately detailed. Dorothy’s influence and rise to potential stardom and Michael’s casual acceptance of those things smacks more of male privilege than of teachable moment. Amy Cajigas as Julie Nichols, Michael’s love interest, has subtle expressiveness and sounds lovely in her solos.

In his debut performance with Way Off Broadway, Robert Howard as Ron Carlisle, Broadway director, is volatile, furious, and an agile dancer. Lizzie Bartlett as Sandy Lester, Michael’s ex-girlfriend, is endearingly frenetic, and her mood swings have the commitment of a Major League batter. Justin M. Kiska as Stan Fields, Michael’s agent, is bombastic and stentorian, with fine-tuned comic timing. He has the range to give dimension to an otherwise flat character. Megan Elizabeth West as Rita Marshall, producer of the Broadway show, makes excellent use of the well-deployed pause before speaking, and her clipped, casual delivery is delightful. Kyle Donovan as macho actor Max Van Horn knocks the plucky comic relief role out of the park.

The highlight of the show, a truly likable character, is Jeff Slater, Michael’s friend and roommate, played by Bob Gudauskas with exquisite timing and dry, understated delivery. He not only has the pithiest lines and the best song of the show; his is the story we can appreciate and support. Gudauskas’ undisclosed operatic talents support his vocals, which seem effortless.

Costuming by director Bill Kiska and Denise Hoover reflects the uneven ethos of the script. The iconic red sequined gown appears, though with an egregious wardrobe malfunction during the curtain call. April Horn of Hair Worx Salon provides the crucial wigs for the show.

The enthusiasm and talent exhibited by the cast is unquestionable, and they’re absolutely charming as wait staff. Whatever your opinion of the characters onstage, you’ll enjoy the good humor and attentiveness these working actors shower upon you during dinner. A pleasant atmosphere, a well-prepared meal, a delicious cocktail, and some amusing moments make for a nice evening out on the town.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Tootsie plays weekends (except July 5–7) through August 24, 2024, at the Way Off Broadway Theatre, 5 Willowdale Drive, Frederick, MD. Tickets, including a buffet dinner, are priced at $56–$65 for adults and are available only through Way Off Broadway’s box office at 301-660-6600 (Tuesday–Friday 10 am–4 pm, Saturdays 12 pm–4 pm). Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The theater does not sell tickets online. The theater is located in the Willowtree shopping center just off West Patrick Street. Parking is conveniently close to the entrance. For more information, go to the website.

The cast and creative team credits are online here.

The buffet menu is here.

Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre’s next production, Anastasia, begins September 13 and runs through November 2, 2024.

Tootsie
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Robert Horn
Directed by Bill Kiska

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Cybele Pomeroy
Cybele Pomeroy, a Baltimore-based writer, has been writing and editing since she could hold a crayon. Her favorite edits are misplaced public apostrophes. She's recently been organizing the memoirs of a Clown who isn't going to die this year after all, writing about her Mother's experience of Alzheimer's disease, and crafting haiku about baseball games without sounding mean to the Orioles, who have had a historically horrible season in 2018. She's been reviewing performances since 2013 but still hasn't seen Les Mis. You can't follow her on Twitter because she hasn't yet figured out why it exists, but you can find her on Facebook as Cybele Pomeroy.

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