Review: Mrs. Doubtfire Is Now a Broadway Musical. Why?
"One of the first things you have to decide on with a musical is: Why should there be songs? You can put songs in any story, but what you have to look for is, why are songs necessary to this story? If it's unnecessary, then the show generally turns out to be not very good."
So said the late Stephen Sondheim in a 2008 interview with the New York Times, and theatermakers are well-advised to ask themselves these questions. So it is with some irony that the creators of Mrs. Doubtfire, now playing at Broadway's Stephen Sondheim Theatre, offer only half-satisfactory answers. This is despite a top-shelf production, excellent performances, and a story that still gets big laughs for its farcical flights of imagination.
Based on the 1993 family comedy starring Robin Williams, Mrs. Doubtfire follows the breakdown of the Hillard family: Miranda (Jenn Gambatese) is starting her own line of clothing, but she feels hindered by the antics of her immature actor husband, Daniel (Rob McClure). "He has three kids, she has four," the ensemble clucks. When they inevitably divorce, Miranda gets custody of the three real kids: Lydia (Analise Scarpaci), Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), and Natalie (Avery Sell). Displaced to a dingy apartment and with few job prospects, Daniel is relegated to weekly visits. But when Miranda decides to hire someone to help with the kids, Daniel decides to circumvent the terms of his custody agreement by posing as an elderly Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire.
One of the challenges of this story is getting an audience to root for a character who is fairly annoying to begin with (I'd dump him) and who responds to a court ruling he dislikes by committing fraud. In the film, Williams makes this leap feel natural and even irresistible, which, in hindsight, was a real superpower.
The process is not as effortless in this new stage musical, but there is no shortage of effort when you cast the hardest-working guy on Broadway in the title role. In fact, McClure carries much of this show on his well-padded shoulders. There is rarely a moment he is offstage as we watch him quick-change in and out of his Doubtfire drag, all while remaining completely engaged in the scene. His boundless charm wins us over, and his comic timing is a marvel. Watching McClure work his magic is the best reason to see Mrs. Doubtfire.
The actual musical is more debatable: The score is by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell (this is the team behind Something Rotten!, a better musical). Songwriters by trade (Wayne has a Grammy), the Kirkpatricks have an undeniable talent for pastiche: For the kids they write the Avril Lavigne knockoff "What the Hell." For Uncle Frank (Brad Oscar) and his husband, Andre (J. Harrison Ghee), there's the disco ditty "Make Me a Woman." We get old Broadway glitz via YouTube tutorials in "Easy Peasy." There's even a ludicrous flamenco number titled "He Lied to Me." These songs are pleasantly melodic and are often greatly enhanced by Lorin Latarro's dazzling choreography. The only problem is, none of them are particularly memorable, so the effect is somewhat like listening to your iPod on shuffle while completing other tasks — in one ear, out the other.
The same can be said of the book, which does little to improve upon Randi Mayen Singer and Leslie Dixon's screenplay, and often garners its biggest laughs from lines drawn directly from the film: "Run-by fruiting" is there (shoehorned in), as is "HELLOO!!" (although the bit with the pie doesn't really work here). It seems like the audience is most tickled to be reminded of the movie, which again begs the question: Why does this need to be a musical?
Director Jerry Zaks certainly doesn't provide an answer, delivering a high-gloss production completely lacking in originality. David Korins has designed a detailed yet nimble set that flies in and out like a member of the chorus. Catherine Zuber's costumes are campy and excessive while also providing for lightning-fast changes. The lighting (by Philip S. Rosenberg) and sound (by Brian Ronan) work together for a flashy and solid Broadway-caliber production that in no way changes the game, but gets the job done.
Several members of the supporting cast stand out: As children's television host Mr. Jolly, Peter Bartlett is like Captain Kangaroo coming off a date with a mortician. He steals every scene he's in. Charity Angél Dawson rocks the house during a dream ballet set to what feels like a trunk song written for Heart. And the always-hilarious Oscar has several delightful moments with Ghee as they try not to get ensnared in Daniel's web of lies.
When it comes to musical comedy (especially one this uneven) any little bit helps to carry the audience across the finish line. So it is baffling that the venue has opted to keep the bar closed, which is not a universal practice on Broadway even in our Covid-conscious times (the Shuberts understand all too well the importance of lubricant when it comes to a show like Diana). Banning alcohol is one thing, but the night I attended Mrs. Doubtfire, I witnessed multiple patrons (including children) chided by the staff for the crime of drinking water in the house during intermission. It is difficult to justify paying the exorbitant price of a Broadway ticket to sit for two-and-a-half hours in such an oppressive environment, and it makes the job of the performers that much harder. I urge whoever implemented these policies to reconsider.
Until then, I wouldn't recommend Mrs. Doubtfire unless you are able to snag a deeply discounted ticket. All the joy, frivolity, and heart of the story can be easily accessed by watching the movie in the comfort of your own home — where you can eat and drink to your heart's content.