“Mrs. Doubtfire,” a musical adaptation of the 1993 Robin Williams movie about a divorced man who disguises himself as a woman so that he can spend time with his children as their nanny, has the misfortune of opening in the Broadway theater named after Stephen Sondheim a week after his death. Sondheim set a standard for musical theater that “Mrs. Doubtfire” doesn’t even attempt to meet. That’s not to say that this new musical comedy, written by the trio that made their Broadway debut with “Something Rotten,” is something rotten. Experienced Broadway pros have put together this production with the usual Rialto pizzazz – expensive looking sets that slide into place; a big, talented, smiling cast; brisk ensemble dancing. But none of the theater makers involved seemed to have spent time answering the kind of basic question that Sondheim liked to ask: Why* does this need to be a musical?
Of the 17 songs, set to a variety of musical styles (rock, jazz, disco, Broadway ballad, bluesy belting and, painfully, rap), I found only one tune memorable, the very last one, the uplifting “As Long As There Is Love.” Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, with choreography by Lorin Latarro, there is a momentary excitement in the elaborate staging that accompanies some of these musical numbers. But few of them feel necessary, and some of them feel cheesy.
In one of the earliest numbers, Daniel (Rob McClure), having pretended to be Mrs. Doubtfire over the phone with his ex-wife Miranda (Jenn Gambatese), rushes over to ask his brother Frank (Brad Oscar) , a makeup artist, to “Make Me a Woman” (the title of the song) so that Daniel can trick Miranda during an in-person interview for the nanny job. Frank and his husband Andre (J. Harrison Ghee) brainstorm in song how they can transform him: “Where to start/It’s hard to know/So many ways we could go./A pill box hat/A pussy bow/And a trapeze coat/like Jackie O.” Suddenly, a Jackie Onassis lookalike poses on the stage – followed by verses and Madame Tussaud-level lookalikes for Princess Diana, Cher, Grace Kelly, and Donna Summer.
Daniel interrupts. He sees Mrs. Doubtfire differently. Cue additional verses and lookalikes for Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, Janet Reno, and Oscar Wilde (all portrayed this time by male members of the ensemble, in drag.)
An observation Sondheim made about the history of musical theater comes to mind here: “After the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, songs became part of the story, as opposed to just entertainments in between comedy scenes.” Yes, there is a story in “Mrs. Doubtfire” (the same one as the movie), but Princess Diana is not part of it (her musical is five blocks away.) There are too many ornamental moments like “Make Me A Woman,” when “Mrs. Doubtfire” seems to be bringing us back some 90 years to pre-revolutionary Broadway when musical numbers did not advance the plot but served primarily as entertainments between comedy scenes.
Let’s talk about the comedy scenes. Much of the humor in “Mrs Doubtfire” involves Daniel getting into and out of his disguise, and into and out of scrapes because of it. There are also a few snappy one-liners (especially in the sniping between Daniel and Miranda.) Some of this lands; there are laughs. The show is abuzz with the rhythm and energy of comedy even when it’s not actually funny. But the actor who has to carry most of this on his shoulders, Rob McClure, is no Robin Williams. Of course, there was only one Robin Williams, and McClure has been very funny in his own way in a career that includes roles in eight shows on Broadway, one of which (“Chaplin”) snagged him a Tony nomination. But McClure feels miscast as Daniel Hillard, a charming character who is a natural entertainer but also a reckless, impulsive man; Daniel’s manic energy, whether or not it’s a diagnosable condition, is over-the-top enough to have destroyed his marriage. By contrast, McClure comes off as mild-mannered by nature. That’s worked well for him in some of the characters I’ve seen him portray in the past, a comic persona that like Buster Keaton reacts deadpan to the chaos around him. It’s not a persona that works as well when it’s generating the chaos.
It’s hard to fault McClure, though, for the most mishandled comic scene in the musical. Daniel is in a restaurant where he is forced to dine at two different tables – one with his family where he’s disguised as Mrs. Doubtfire; the other as himself with the TV executive (Jodi Kimura) who is considering hiring him to take over as host of a moribund children’s TV show. This means frantic costume changes back and forth, and double drinking along the way, with Daniel getting increasingly drunk. But how to do this in real time on stage? The production introduces a musical number, “He Lied To Me,” sung by a flamenco singer (Aléna Watters), accompanied by two flamenco dancers, presumably for the entertainment of the restaurant customers. The number obviously exists to keep the audience occupied while giving McClure the time off-stage to get repeatedly in and out of his Mrs. Doubtfire get-up. This is funny at the outset, and at the climactic end of the number, but it’s mostly just awkward, a lesson in the difference between a musical and a movie – or, certainly, between this musical and the movie, where the scene was a highlight.
There are plenty of reasons, then, why I’m not wholly won over by the musical version of “Mrs. Doubtfire” that have nothing to do with the gender politics of the show. By this I mean: Putting a man in a dress for a laugh existed in a different context in 1993 than it does in 2021, a time of greater awareness and sensitivity around issues involving gender identity. Now, it’s…off-putting, offensive, undermining of the LGBTQ community. I understand that some might consider such a concern too woke to worry about, but the creative team does seem to worry about it (perhaps mindful of the criticism that the musical adaptation of “Tootsie” received.) The marketing around the musical makes the claim that it’s not just for laughs; it’s meant as a warmhearted embrace of family, broadly defined (“…we’re better together”); there’s even the wispiest of subplots in the show (more like an aside) about a gay interracial couple adopting a baby. As in “Tootsie,” we’re supposed to see that impersonating a woman has made Daniel a better man; in his case, a better father to his three children (portrayed by Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci and Avery Sell.) Even Miranda sees that, but she also says that Mrs. Doubtfire “brought out the best” in her as well – which rather confuses the argument that there is a feminist message behind all the slapstick.
There’s something manifestly too calculated about these efforts, and indeed about the musical as a whole. Calculation (more than any organic artistic vision) seemed to be a guiding principle for these same writers — brothers Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, with collaborator John O’Farrell – in “Something Rotten.” At least that 2015 show, a cheeky original musical comedy about two brothers who are hilariously resentful rivals of William Shakespeare, was not even pretending to aim for anything but laughter — and it hit that mark more often for me than “Mrs. Doubtfire” does.
There are many musicals on Broadway based on old movies right now (and there will soon be more.) In a recent poll I conducted that listed each of the current Broadway musicals (not including “Mrs. Doubtfire,” because it hadn’t opened yet), the majority of theatergoers said they either preferred the Broadway adaptation or that both the Hollywood and Broadway versions were equally as good in their own way. That’s how it should be; why create something derivative that’s worse than the original? I think I can guess how theatergoers at the Stephen Sondheim Theater — even those who don’t have the objections I have; even those who thoroughly enjoy themselves – would answer that poll question about “Mrs. Doubtfire”… especially since the original movie is currently available on Amazon Prime.
click on photographs to see them enlarged
Stephen Sondheim Theater
Tickets: $49-$229 ($35 rush)
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Supervision by Ethan Popp
Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design by Brian Ronan; Hair & Wig Designby David Brian Brown; and Make-up & Prosthetics Design by Tommy Kurzman.
Cast: Rob McClure as Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire, Jenn Gambatese as Miranda Hillard, Peter Bartlett as Mr. Jolly, Charity Angél Dawson as Wanda Sellner, Mark Evans as Stuart Dunmire, J. Harrison Ghee as Andre Mayem, Analise Scarpaci as Lydia Hillard, Jake Ryan Flynn as Christopher Hillard, Avery Sell as Natalie Hillard and Brad Oscar as Frank Hillard. Mrs. Doubtfire will also feature Cameron Adams, Calvin L. Cooper, Kaleigh Cronin, Maria Dalanno, Casey Garvin, David Hibbard, KJ Hippensteel, Aaron Kaburick, Jodi Kimura, Erica Mansfield, Brian Martin, Alexandra Matteo, Sam Middleton, LaQuet Sharnell Pringle, Akilah Sailers, Jaquez André Sims, Addison Takefman, Travis Waldschmidt and Aléna Watters.
Photographs by Joan Marcus.
*Sondheim called his own musical “Do I Hear A Waltz”?, which he wrote with Richard Rodgers, a “Why? musical”—“a perfectly respectable show, based on a perfectly respectable source, that has no reason for being.”