As a perfect pandemic pick-me-up and a charming rendition of a beloved classic film, Mrs. Doubtfire will likely find an enthusiastic audience on Broadway. Based on the 1993 film, the plot hews closely to the original with some amusing updates inspired largely by modern technology. But while Rob McClure’s consummate skill as a singer, dancer, and comic actor represent a career defining performance as the eponymous character, a curiously dated aura hangs over the musical that no desire for nostalgia can quite overcome.
The show doesn’t really come to life until feckless husband Daniel Hillard (McClure) resorts to donning the disguise of a middle-aged Scottish nanny in order to get more time with his kids following his divorce. The opening 15 minutes lead up to this with a rather plodding exposition in which Daniel’s wife, Miranda, hits her limit of her actor spouse’s preference for goofing off over parenting and getting a job. The role of Miranda, played ably by Jenn Gambatese, is definitely the short straw in this show, falling victim to the old trope of the shrill humorless shrew. Purportedly a fashion designer, her career is belied by an unrelentingly style-free wardrobe. The three kids are also one-dimensional stereotypes: the stroppy boy, the feisty and fearless teenage girl, and the cute youngster with ringlets and a squeaky voice. Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci and Avery Sell manage to bring charm and humor to their roles. Only Analise as Lydia gets some memorable singing moments.
But like the writers, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, let’s not dwell on the ambivalent portrayal of women and children because what makes this show a fun fest is the ludicrous premise that a dad could convincingly disguise himself as a woman and not even his family would guess (at least not for a comic half hour). When he is finally revealed, his son Christopher exclaims, “You look like Grandma crossed with Shrek.” The transformation of Daniel to Doubtfire is one of the stand out moments–with cameos from an array of famously frumpy women including Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Child, topped off by Donna Summer in the number “Make Me a Woman.” Daniel’s brother is conveniently a make-up artist who with his stylist husband (Brad Oscar and J.Harrison Ghee in a lovely double-act) make over the slim, scruffy Daniel into a formidable and rotund woman dressed in an array of cozy cardigans and sensible shoes. Here, Tommy Kurzman’s makeup and prosthetics deserve special mention. While we see the full disguise come on and off numerous times, the transformation is nevertheless convincing. The look however, is straight from the film, which is perhaps playing it a bit safe. Rob McClure embodies both his characters seamlessly. Even when changing back and forth minute to minute as in the scene where his family liaison officer, the imposing Charity Angél Dawson, catches him in disguise and in the fabulous denouement set in a Spanish restaurant with a flamenco singer (Aléna Watters) intoning an apt song about betrayal.
As the inevitable unravelling of the disguise proceeds, we are treated to some memorable laugh-out-loud moments including an array of cooking show stars who come alive in a tap-dancing number, “Easy Peasy”, after Mrs. Doubtfire asks Siri for help learning to cook. Later, Mrs. Doubtfire dishes relationship advice to Miranda’s new beau in a superb scene set in a testosterone fueled gym. An appearance by Mrs. Doubtfire as a last-minute substitute for a plus-size model in a fashion show also brings the house down. The set, designed by David Korins, whimsically brings to life the San Francisco locale with a lovely silhouetted skyline. But a color palette dominated by mauve gives the family home a curiously chilly air.
When Daniel is not impersonating Mrs. Doubtfire, he’s doing double time as a janitor at a TV station where an ageing Mr. Rogers-like character is quite literally losing the plot. Peter Bartlett does a heartwarming turn as the antiquated star and though he gets pushed out of fronting the TV show, he is reassuringly resurrected later to perform another day. This subplot leads to the unashamedly middle-brow crowd pleasing message that all families, whatever their make-up, are good “as long as there’s love.” Even though this is a 21st century show, beyond the nod to diverse families, there’s no acknowledgement that gender fluidity in various forms is also now widely accepted. Perhaps that’s a step too far for a family friendly show albeit one with some salacious and overt double-entendres (Moose knuckles anyone?). With such a strong cast, Mrs. Doubtfire is assured a bright future, but whether others can replicate McClure’s Mrs. Doubtfire should the production tour, is not so clear. It’s also a pity that in this day and age, the real female roles don’t get to shine a little more brightly beside the man impersonating a woman.