Barely 15 minutes of Mrs. Doubtfire has passed before the wife of the manic, cloying man-child at the center of the developing farce demands a divorce, and we can only puzzle over what took her so long.
Granted, the wife is no prize either, a humorless, uptight career woman caricature rarely seen these days outside Lifetime holiday TV-movies. How she and so many other dated and tired tropes from a dated and tired 1993 movie made it past so many talented Broadway creators through so many years of stage development is a mystery more interesting than anything that shouts itself into existence over two and a half hours nightly at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
The amount of talent behind the high-spirited, very sporadically fun Mrs. Doubtfire is undeniable, from the creators of the low-key brilliant Something’s Rotten!, the legendary director Jerry Zaks, and MVP star Rob McClure, whose quicksilver vocal impressions and comedic shape-shifting more than rival the same attributes that made the movie’s Robin Williams a comedy icon. Yet all of that combined know-how can only serve to shine and polish a creaky machine that probably should have been junked and sold for parts well before its arrival on Broadway.
Stuffed with one-dimensional cultural stereotypes – a gay couple as Paul Lynde-loud in volume as they are in flamboyant affectation, a Flamenco dancer of the Charo school, a Black hip-hop DJ whose only contribution to the plot is leaving behind his musical equipment so the white hero can rap and moonwalk – Mrs. Doubtfire has a little something to offend everyone willing to peek behind the surface cheer and stapled-on platitudes.
With a book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell, music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick and based, of course, on the movie that gave Williams his not-Mork signature role, Mrs. Doubtfire tells the story of out-of-work voice actor Daniel Hillard (McClure, in the Williams role) whose childlike irresponsibility – he just wants to have fun – so angers his stick-in-the-mud corporate-wannabe wife Miranda (Jenn Gambatese) that she files for divorce and convinces a judge to restrict Daniel’s access to their three kids to weekly visits. Pretty harsh for a guy whose crimes amount to no more than stale Dad Jokes, non-stop showboating, and a penchant for before-the-flood references (“Video Killed The Radio Star,” seriously?) that any good custody lawyer would place squarely at the blame of lazy book writers.
So Daniel does the logical thing: He disguises himself as an elderly Scottish nanny named Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire so as to trick his way into the Hillard homestead on a daily basis. After a rocky start, the kids and the ex grow to love the indispensable newcomer, Daniel learns some Tootsie-like lessons about manhood and adulthood, and Mrs. Doubtfire spreads love, warmth and wisdom wherever she goes.
See the problem yet? In an age when hard-fought battles for trans rights and identities are being waged, Mrs. Doubtfire – the character – is no “she.” He’s a he, playing dress up and mansplaining life lessons that feel tacked-on to an enterprise that depends entirely on the supposed comic value of a man in women’s clothing.
And if you think that’s unfairly weighty for such a frivolous enterprise, stick around for the scene in which the two gay characters – wizards of the fashion and cosmetic make-over, naturally – consider how to style Daniel into Mrs. Doubtfire. As they ponder such feminine icons as Donna Summer, Cher and Princess Diana, members of the musical’s ensemble take the stage in faithful impersonations. When the realization sets in that Daniel won’t be able to pull off such glamorous drag, the stage is flooded with male dancers crudely done up as what the musical considers to be less physically appealing real-life women – Janet Reno, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child.
Not only is the scene remarkably clueless in its attitude toward socially approved female appearance (and trans reality), but it’s cowardly, making long-gone targets the butt of the joke and relying on handed-down references that weren’t funny when Saturday Night Live got there ages ago.
Like so much else in this musical (and in the recent Broadway productions Chicken & Biscuits and Diana, The Musical) the scene betrays the creative team’s sloppy approach to anything resembling historical specificity. More than once I felt like Agent Cooper in that final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return when he shouts, “What year is this??” We know Doubtfire is set in the present – there’s a Trump joke, iPads make an appearance, Siri is referenced – but the detritus that seems to have accumulated over the musical’s years-long development (and its 1993 film origins) clings like so much caked make-up: Why Janet Reno? Why is there a pre-scandal Paula Dean joke? Does anyone still think beat-boxing and breakdancing are the epitome of cool? What year is this?
Like most film-to-stage adaptations, Mrs. Doubtfire goes to great lengths to recreate the movie’s memorable moments, with modest results. The self-administered cake in the face that, legend has it, was improvised by Williams, here comes and goes pretty quickly and, lacking the film’s close-up shot, makes little impression, while the fake-breasts-on-fire during a cooking scene just seems gross and desperate.
Sonically, Mrs. Doubtfire generally evades the time conundrum by sticking to a pleasant, generic pop-rock musical theater style that belongs firmly to no era. The pastiche approach slips up seriously only when it veers to emotive ballad mode meant to add some character heft. Whatever success is achieved on that level falls squarely on the impressive vocal cords of McClure and, as the family’s moody teenager Lydia, young Analise Scarpaci.
McClure, especially, is impressive throughout, finally given the chance to show off the incredible flash and versatility that, in his last Broadway outing Beetlejuice, were left to the title star Alex Brightman. In Doubtfire, McClure rarely leaves the stage – even when diversionary tricks like the Flamenco dance or the Donna Summer-Cher-Janet Reno drag show would allow him to do just that. If musicals were graded solely on effort and actorly appeal, McClure would earn Mrs. Doubtfire an A+.
The rest of the cast isn’t so lucky. Jenn Gambatese doesn’t have the built-in good will that audiences could lend the film’s Sally Field as the spoilsport mom, and the young actors playing the Hillard children (Scarpaci, Jake Ryan Flynn, Avery Sell) are rarely called upon to provide more than generic stage kid precocity.
But don’t blame the children: The secondary adult performers fare no better. Charity Angél Dawson as the stern social worker is one-dimensional sitcom villainy until she’s handed the musical’s requisite fire and brimstone bluesy gospel number, and Brad Oscar and J. Harrison Ghee, as the queer eyes for the straight guy, are directed to go over the top in an already over-the-top show. Only Mark Evans, as Miranda’s hunky new beau, is afforded the opportunity to display some subtlety, making a nice guy of what could have been a standard-issue homewrecker.
And then there’s the hilarious character actor Peter Bartlett, doing his absolute best playing a has-been children’s show host in stand-alone scenes that seem designed mostly to give McClure some down time.
Not that McClure needs any in-the-wings time to turn from Daniel to Doubtfire: the musical’s crackerjack team of designers work miracles for the onstage transformations. From the make-up and prosthetics designer Tommy Kurzman, hair and wig designer David Brian Brown and costumer designer Catherine Zuber to scenic designer David Korins, all work together to solve a problem that the movie’s creators didn’t face – how to turn a young man into an old woman before the eyes of a live audience. Certainly Mrs. Doubtfire lives or dies on the stage tradition of suspended disbelief that long precedes Shakespeare’s gender-swapping disguises, but the quick-change stuff has to be done very quickly (and with reasonable conviction) to make the farce work as well as it does here.
If only the property’s other obstacles could be so convincingly overcome. All the directorial panache Zaks brings to this lightning paced production, all the charm displayed by McClure, all the energy contributed by a tireless ensemble can’t disguise the obvious: Mrs. Doubtfire just isn’t worth the effort.
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