As the title character in the musical “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the superlative performer Rob McClure tears around the stage like a human tornado. In the role made famous by the inimitable Robin Williams, McClure manages to evoke that actor’s comic genius while forging his own dizzying path into the role. Yes, his voice box is a veritable Spotify of mimicry — playlist including a creditable Donald Trump — as was Williams’s. But McClure is also a fine singer, a nimble dancer (even in the Doubtfire getup) and an actor who captures the character’s antic humor as well as his yearning paternal warmth.
But his herculean efforts to lift the show into the musical theater heavens, while always fun to watch, are ultimately unavailing. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” like virtually all stage adaptations of popular movies, still feels like an unnecessary and at times laboriously strained transcription of the original film.
Yes, it’s often quite funny, whether borrowing dialogue wholesale from the movie or freshening it up. And, like its celluloid progenitor, it indulges in moments of sweet sentiment that tiptoe toward the cloying line without crossing it. But it shares a fundamental problem with most similar shows: The movie was chosen for adaptation because it was a hit, and superbly executed, which makes it virtually impossible to equal, let alone surpass on stage.
Only a first-rate score that could amplify the movie’s charms could make the enterprise successful, and while the score, by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, is plentifully varied — there’s a disco frolic, a tap dance, even a flamenco song — it remains more serviceable than inspired. The superior “Tootsie,” with a similar man-in-drag plot, had a mediocre score, too, but was elevated by a dazzlingly witty book that managed to improve upon that movie’s ample humor. Here, the book, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, mostly just channels the movie’s frantic humor and flashes of wit.
The plot, unsurprisingly, follows closely that of the movie. Daniel Hillard (McClure) is a loving father with the soul of a clown, and his clowning becomes a downer for his hardworking wife, Miranda (Jenn Gambatese). An opening scene — an unnecessary addition — finds him spoiling a family photo by getting himself dolled up as a pirate and eventually breaking the photographer’s camera through his manic behavior. Then comes the sequence that signals the breakdown of the marriage in the movie, when Daniel insists on throwing a wild birthday party for his 12-year-old son Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), to which Daniel inadvertently invites a stripper.
Divorce ensues, with the mostly unemployed Daniel — his gift of mimicry hasn’t gotten him far as an actor — receiving once-weekly visitation rights. His meeting with a counselor brings one of the timely and funny new lines in the book. When, uncharmed by his comedy act, the counselor tells him to get an apartment, he cracks: “Right. Find affordable housing in San Francisco. And you think I’m the one trying to be funny?” (Less funny additions to book: fart jokes.) If you recall the movie, you probably don’t need reminding that with the help of his gay brother and his partner, makeup artists played by a lively Brad Oscar and J. Harrison Ghee, respectively, Daniel is transformed into Mrs. Doubtfire, an amply upholstered older woman with a vaguely Scottish accent, and becomes the Hillard family’s part-time nanny.
The scene in which this magic takes place is an extended, OK, overextended, disco number in which a surreal array of female icons — from Cher and Donna Summer to Lady Diana and Jackie Onassis, not to mention Margaret Thatcher and Janet Reno — make cameo appearances, cavorting to Lorin Latarro’s energetic but mostly derivative choreography. Other splashy ensemble numbers, which attempt somewhat desperately to add pizzazz to the proceedings, include a fashion parade which Mrs. Doubtfire is corralled into participating in, and the climactic scene in which Daniel must dervish between his two personas in the same restaurant – with predictably disastrous results — occasioning that flamenco passage.
Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, an expert in comedy of all kinds, the farcical interludes provide the most satisfying diversions. McClure is an expert physical comedian, and makes the most of Daniel’s near-fatal attempt to cook, for instance, and his desperate bid to fool his counselor when she surprises him in his Doubtfire disguise and then insists on talking to Daniel. In less frenzied mode, McClure delivers with fine sensitivity and no histrionics a couple of ballads that recall the more subdued songs of Billy Joel.
But most of the other songs are of the middling Broadway-pop variety, while the lyrics don’t equal the humor of the book, providing the rest of the cast with few opportunities to shine. Gambatese, a veteran of several Broadway shows, brings a fine sense of exasperation mingled with natural sympathy to Miranda, but the role is no prize. As Daniel and Miranda’s oldest daughter, Lydia, Analise Scarpaci gets to sing the family woes in an early number, and infuses a fine-tuned ambivalence into her role. The other young actors — Flynn as Chris, and Avery Sell as the youngest, Natalie — are also excellent. Peter Bartlett, playing the children’s TV show host who’s going a bit dotty, ultimately to be replaced by Daniel-as-Mrs. D, brightens his couple of scenes, although ghosts of gay stereotype hover.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” certainly rises well above the low bars set by such dismal movie-to-musical-theater transfers as “Ghost,” “Footloose” and my all-time least-favorite, “Dirty Dancing,” which mercifully never made it to Broadway — that’s how bad it was! And it’s not a show that is likely to either rise or fall on the strength (or not) of reviews. Audiences looking for something familiar and family-friendly will hardly go away disgruntled. But it represents another in a long line of forgettable musicals adapted from superior films, which, in a nervous season of recovery on Broadway, doesn’t give a ready-to-cheer critic much to cheer about.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Dec. 5, 2021.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell; Music by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick; Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick; Directed by Jerry Zaks; Choreographed by Lorin Latarro; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producers: Kevin McCollum, Jamie Wilson, Gavin Kalin, Hunter Arnold, Todd & Katie Boehly, LAMS Productions, Bob Cohen, Isaac Robert Hurwitz, Crossroads Live, Barbara Freitag, IPN, Cecilia Lin/Sing Out Louise, Janet Brenner/Laura Ivey, Boyett/Miller, Ayal Miodovnik, Bard Theatricals, Kilimanjaro Theatricals/Broadway Factor NYC and Lucas McMahon.
Cast: Rob McClure, Peter Bartlett, Charity Angél Dawson, Mark Evans, Jake Ryan Flynn, Jenn Gambatese, J. Harrison Ghee, Brad Oscar, Analise Scarpaci, Avery Sell, Cameron Adams, Calvin L. Cooper, Kaleigh Cronin, Maria Dalanno, Casey Garvin, David Hibbard, K.J. Hippensteel, Aaron Kaburick, Jodi Kimura, Erica Mansfield, Sam Middleton, Akilah Sailers, Jaquez André Sims, Addison Takefman and Aléna Watters.