‘Mrs. Doubtfire review: the nanny doesn’t know the best
In 1993, a movie about an irresponsible father disguising himself as a woman to make his way through his family’s life caused laughter. A man in a robe? Classic! Does he make impressions? Even better! He’s trying to sabotage his wife’s new relationship? Golden comedy!
Really, it was another time.
And that was the main challenge for the theatrical adaptation of “Mrs. Doubtfire, ”a new musical that premiered Sunday night at the Stephen Sondheim Theater. With music and lyrics by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, “Mrs. Doubtfire “simultaneously tries to replicate an outdated story and update it for the time. But the show does not end up curling up in the shadow of the original film.
And speaking of shadows, there’s the outsized one of the incomparable Robin Williams. In the film, Williams brought his endearing playfulness to the role of Daniel Hillard, a struggling actor who lacks discipline as a father. When Daniel’s wife divorces and gets custody of their three children, he poses as the kind but firm Scottish nanny Euphegenia Doubtfire in order to spend time with her children.
Rob McClure steps into Mrs. Doubtfire’s shoes in this production. He’s lively on stage and his impressions, including a hilarious tongue-wagging Gollum, are invaluable. But director Jerry Zaks’ ambivalent production tries to have it both ways: the story of a playful man-child with whom we sympathize but whose good intentions cannot excuse his machinations. The film was successful at the time, mainly thanks to the charms of Williams. McClure’s Daniel, however, is more irritating than entertaining, and his antics – which include hacking his wife’s email account to sabotage his nanny search – are more creepy than outlandish.
But would Williams have done better in 2021, when the toxicity of the actions of this male character would have sounded the alarm?
This strain is ubiquitous in this production, whose pandemic 18-month hiatus has coincided with new conversations about race, gender and fairness.
When Daniel asks his gay brother Frank (an amiable Brad Oscar) and his brother-in-law Andre (an elegant J. Harrison Ghee) to give him latex, silicone and powder to become a woman (the awesome makeup and prosthetic designs are by Tommy Kurzman), they casually support what appears to be Daniel’s newfound interest in drag – until they hear his true intentions.
Frank and Andre – who have a paper-thin history of adopting a child, by the way – are very loosely meant to serve as the gay conscience of a decidedly straight production. So they go along with the plan, sometimes appearing for comedic relief. In one issue, they also get a personal set of male stylists snapping and flicking their wrists, because even the show’s gay stereotypes are boring.
The film’s lines about Mrs. Doubtfire having a penis have been excised, and in a surface attempt to make Daniel’s wife Miranda (Jenn Gambatese) a more feminist and sympathetic figure, the show’s creators have made them the owner of a body-positive sportswear line called “M Body”. The pseudo-feminist song she sings at a fashion show, “Shape of Things to Come”, is a painfully puny inspirational poster masquerading as a piece of music.
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O’Farrell and the Kirkpatrick brothers, whose previous Broadway release was the musical “Something Rotten!” In 2015, generate a handful of laughs with the original material, like Frank’s quirk of screaming every time he lies, and the second half of Daniel’s makeover song, when the list of fashion inspirations for a Scottish nanny matron goes from the glamorous Jackie O. and Princess Di to the more practical Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child. And a chorus of singing and dancing internet conductors, there via tablet magic to help Mrs. Doubtfire cook dinner, are hilariously interrupted by an IBS commercial. Yet the scenes that make the laughter here are still the ones that are almost identical to the ones in the movie.
The musical is jam-packed with unnecessary additions, mostly in the form of several awkwardly incorporated or homiletical songs. Ms. Doubtfire’s iconic vacuum dance scene isn’t made to the perfect Aerosmith “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”, but with the decidedly less catchy original song “Rockin ‘Now”.
Many songs are used to carry heavy emotional exposure, and when taken together they offer a strange mishmash of musical styles. The oldest child, Lydia (Analise Scarpaci, who represents the public’s point of view on Hillard marriage), leads the children in the rebellious rock song “What the Hell”. Then there’s a pinch of flamenco at a Spanish restaurant; the disco-inspired “Make Me a Woman”; the jazzy “Easy Peasy”, with a catchy ensemble tap act (the choreography is by Lorin Latarro); and “Playing With Fire,” a rock song with a volcanic, albeit random, performance by Wanda (Charity Angel Dawson), Daniel’s court liaison.
David Korins ‘own but generic ensemble is made up of large moving parts that convey each location: the Hillards’ lilac-walled San Francisco home of the Hillards, a courtroom, a 3D graphic skyline with a Golden Gate Bridge. illuminated, a stencil overlay of a block of Victorian houses with the hairpin bends of Lombard Street in the background. It’s functional, but a missed opportunity to give the production some extra character to stand out more from the original film.
While “Ms. The ‘Doubtfire’ movie can now be – understandably – considered transphobic, he’s funny and likable and, more importantly, confident in what he is. Its musical counterpart isn’t sure which notes to strike, which jokes to rewrite, and which updates to add to be relevant. The production wants audiences to like and be skeptical of its straight male protagonist, and it includes gay characters but doesn’t fully embrace them. A man in drag? Come on, it’s 2021. It’s just another night on the town.
At the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Manhattan; mrsdoubtfirebroadway.com. Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes.