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Chico's musical 'Tootsie' tackles complex themes in the wake of #MeToo

Ben Kaiser leads the cast of "Tootsie", playing characters  Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels.
Jennifer Redeker Photography
Ben Kaiser leads the cast of "Tootsie," playing characters Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels.

“Tootsie” is crossing over from the screen to the stage in Chico, four decades after the original film's debut. But this version of the musical has updated views on gender politics, including the cliche of portraying a man in a wig and dress as comedic.

Based on the 1982 film of the same name, the musical tells the story of Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor who disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels to land a role in a play.

The movie starred Dustin Hoffman as Dorsey and became an award-winning box office hit. It’s ranked second on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time. First on the list is "Some Like It Hot," which also has a storyline of men masquerading as women.

The stage musical "Tootsie" debuted in April 2019 and has been performed in theatres across the country since.

Marina Kalani, director of California Regional Theatre’s production of "Tootsie," is fully aware of the controversial "man in a dress" trope that comes with the musical. She says she is ready to take on the challenge.

Ben Kaiser and Alyssa Jade share a moment in "Tootsie."
Jennifer Redeker Photography
Ben Kaiser and Alyssa Jade share a moment in "Tootsie."

"I think our attitudes about men, women, and their relationships are a little bit different than when the movie came out," Kalani said. "At the end of the day, we … felt like it had all the elements we wanted to touch on. Great music, great comedy, great script, relevant themes."

The history of cross-dressing on stage and on screen is as old as time. From Shakespeare to major Hollywood films like "Mrs. Doubtfire," countless productions that showcase a man wearing women’s clothing are labeled as comedies.

But in today's climate, is a man in a dress still the appropriate laugh it once was?

"There are challenges in approaching the audience so they understand that this isn't a show about a crossdresser," Kalani said. "That's not who he is. In his mind, he's just playing another character. And that character is Dorothy Michaels. So the challenge of overcoming that idea of it's a show about a man in a dress, it's so much more, above and beyond just what that visual implies."

Chico Regional Theatre Actor Ben Kaiser takes on the dual role of Michael Dorsey and his invented persona, Dorothy Michaels.

"It was finding a thread through both characters because it really is the same person at the core," Kaiser said. "Finding a very grounded, frustrated individual in Michael Dorsey who is at his wits end with not finding work and being labeled as a difficult actor. And so then creating this new character, Dorothy Michaels, who has the confidence to speak up in a powerful way that maybe Michael Dorsey doesn't.”

Kaiser acknowledges the possible issues with the material but points out that the production does an excellent job of addressing gender inequality and stereotypes.

Alyssa Jade is front and center with the cast of "Tootsie."
Jennifer Redeker Photography
Alyssa Jade is front and center with the cast of "Tootsie."

"From the outside, we're looking at a musical where a straight man is pretending to be a woman to get a part on a show," Kaiser said. "But something a bit different than the original movie is that it addresses that a lot more straightforward. And the character Michael Dorsey, who is creating this ruse in Dorothy Michaels, is not made out to be a hero."

The main character gains the benefits of pretending to be a woman, but he also experiences the scrutiny that comes with it.

"This musical came out shortly after the #MeToo movement, and there are some characters in this musical that I think are an unfortunate example of how some people in power operate in the entertainment industry," Kaiser said.

Ben Kaiser and Alyssa Jade performing in "Tootsie."
Jennifer Redeker Photography
Ben Kaiser and Alyssa Jade performing in "Tootsie."

Alyssa Jade, who plays Julie Nichols, Michael Dorsey's love interest, agreed. She says she feels the show does a great job of bringing that example to light.

"In the era of movements where women are taking back their power in new ways, I think the musical makes the women really powerful," Jade said.

Jade highlights how this musical version of the story now reflects contemporary issues and challenges, all while emphasizing the importance of balancing sensitivity and femininity with strength and relatability.

"There's a lot of stuff you have to absorb with this show, but at the end of the day, everything ends with a laugh, and everything ends with a good time," Jade said. "There's a lot of really fun aspects to the show that I think people are really going to love."

She adds that the director, Marina Kalani, was able to bring it together with a good balance of humor and vulnerability.

"On the surface, we want them (the audience) to have a good time, we want them to have great laughs, and they will because it's funny, and the actors are strong, and so very talented, and the vocals are amazing," Kalani said.

"Tootsie" is currently showing at the First Street Theater in Chico, Calif., until June 23.

Angel Huracha has been a part of the journalism field since 2006 and has covered a range of topics. He is a graduate of Chico State with a Bachelor's degree in news-editorial and public relations with a minor in English.