theater review

Mrs. Doubtfire Skirts the Problem

From Mrs. Doubtfire, at the Stephen Sondheim. Photo: Joan Marcus

Despite its place of honor in the Gen-X nostalgia zone — among Pretty Woman and Mean Girls and Moulin Rouge! — Chris Columbus’s movie Mrs. Doubtfire is not an obvious candidate for musical adaptation. Something in it, though, sang out to Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, the composer-lyricist brothers behind the frequently hilarious Something Rotten!, and their book-writing collaborator John O’Farrell (Karey co-wrote the script). They’ve made an adaptation of an adaptation, since the screenplay was based on Anne Fine’s novel Alias Madame Doubtfire, but much of what you’ll remember from the movie — if you are of an age to remember it — will be the wild spill of improvisation by Robin Williams, whose quick-draw wisecracks gave it its thrill. The plot follows a divorced dad, Daniel, whose anguish at being separated from his children leads him to dress up as a Scotswoman and get hired as nanny to his kids. Seems creepy, but Williams made it seem somehow pure and delicate. The experience of playing the soft-voiced Mrs. Doubtfire teaches Daniel how to discipline his children and himself — how to listen, how to partner, how to parent. Williams cooed, “Oh, poppet,” at us and twinkled tearily through his latex mask, and a generation fell hard.

So even before it begins, the stage version has to fight on two fronts. First, there’s Williams. The role is his, and his shadow stretches long over the stage. The musical needs to pay him homage, including lines that are so beloved (“A run-by fruiting!”) that a dude in my row punched the sky when he heard it. Williams was a comedy machine — one that ran so hot you could see it throwing off bolts and sparks. Can anyone in the world imitate that? As this show’s Doubtfire, Rob McClure doesn’t, exactly. McClure has a different, more glancing touch, though deft as a diamond cutter. (I spent the shutdown watching his “conductor cam” videos, which demonstrate how much humor one man can milk from just exasperation and a tuxedo jacket.) He’s lovable and quick, a spinning top who isn’t afraid to seem like an out-and-out pill before his Doubtfirean redemption. To help him, the book-writers also spread out some of the comic burden — the brilliant Brad Oscar plays Daniel’s makeup maestro (and brother) Frank, who SHOUTS ANY TIME HE LIES. This tendency is adorable, and it seems to run in the family, which means family meals get VERY LOUD ACCIDENTALLY once Daniel’s son, Chris (Jake Ryan Flynn), figures out what’s going on.

The second elephant in the theater is, of course, the cross-dressing. A guy-in-a-dress bit can be a conduit for mean-spirited bigotry, transphobia, the works. I watched the movie recently, and it has unpalatable moments — there are gay-panic jokes and cringey song choices (“Dude Looks Like a Lady”) and nervous affirmations that Daniel hasn’t suddenly found a “new lifestyle.” Still, Harvey Fierstein, playing Daniel’s flamboyant brother, does indicate it might be cool to wear dresses even when it’s not a ruse, and the film’s thoroughgoing gentleness has helped some kids play publicly with gender. Certainly it’s keen-eyed about masculinity: Daniel only blossoms when he puts the constant performance of manhood aside. Considering the number of childish jokes, it’s a complicated film with a complex morality. In the musical, the Kirkpatricks and O’Farrell have tried to pick only its cherries: Maybe (they seem to think) they can amplify the film’s sweetness and thoughtfulness while cutting its callousness wherever they see it.

“Wherever they see it,” though, isn’t everything, and director Jerry Zaks and the all-male writing collective miss a lot. The makeover song “Make Me a Woman,” for instance, starts with brother Frank affirming Daniel’s desire to be turned into a woman. “If he wants to be a woman he has every right to be!” Whereupon Frank’s husband, Andre (J. Harrison Ghee), moves us decisively away from the idea that this kind of transvestism is gender expression. “That’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking about putting on a disguise to deceive his ex-wife,” says Andre. The creative team dusts its hands; they’ve taken care of people thinking this is a musical about transness! No one can be offended now! But then they immediately make a whoopsie in the misogyny department. Frank, Andre, Daniel, and the ensemble leap into a song-and-dance number about what kind of lady he should become. Will Daniel’s new guise look like … Princess Di? Donna Summer? Cher? The lissome women from the chorus dance around in tiara, disco gear, sequined jumpsuit. Or will he choose another model? Say Eleanor Roosevelt, Janet Reno, Julia Child? Now the men of the ensemble come out, pirouetting in tweed skirt suits. The joke, ha ha ha, is that these actual women looked like men in drag. Oh, did they, now? I started to grind my back teeth down to stumps.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro keeps the ensemble high-kicking, but the intricate dance of “Can we keep the original’s blockbuster appeal but meet the moment?” is also always happening onstage. Can they give the mom, Miranda (Jenn Gambatese), more of an inner life? (No.) Can they add enough LGBTQIA+ representation to make us feel better about the guy-in-a-dress jokes? (Hmmm.) Can they make the eldest daughter Lydia less of a cipher? (Yes, by giving her several songs, which Analise Scarpaci kills.) Can they solve some of the original’s issues by making Daniel’s new boss a woman? (Not exactly, since there are now three lady-boss types who present as humorless scolds.) By its very defensive nature, this sort of cover-yourself dance is always a box step: one step forward and one step back. They’ve even taken the “Mrs.” off the posters. And, look, I don’t enjoy sitting in a theater with my police whistle, shrilling it every time a show puts a foot into my That’s Offensive zone. But in a great big, family-friendly, intentionally anodyne Broadway show, you can sense the production trying to appeal to the largest number of folks without getting rapped on the knuckles for insensitivity. They push certain problems down and down, all while grinning anxiously. It doesn’t happen often, but when something gross does bubble to the surface — it stinks like a bog.

Physically, the show has two core comic tools. The first is what Rob McClure can do with his Doubtfire getup. He plays a broom like a guitar! He sets fire to his rubber bosom! He break-dances in a fitnesswear parade for Miranda’s new line! McClure himself is an antic type, elfin and prone to sudden grace and funny squawks: Imagine Kermit the Frog with incredible vocal control. Putting him inside a bulky padded costume means that we’re seeing the two layers spinning in opposite directions: In the show’s best dance number — Mrs. Doubtfire learns to cook from a parade of tap-dancing YouTube chefs — McClure hikes up his dress and you see the frenzied duck-on-a-pond paddle that’s going on beneath his skirt. The second comic tool is more broadly applicable: farce. The liveliest scenes are the ones in which Daniel has to get in and out of Doubtfire at speed. (Certain miracles have been created by prosthetics designer Tommy Kurzman and costume designer Catherine Zuber, which mean that he can scramble in and out of full disguise right in front of us. A full Doubtfiring took Robin Williams’s team four hours.) While juggling two jobs and meetings with a court liaison, Daniel gets into Servant of Two Masters–style trouble, whizzing in and out of rooms, ducking behind doors, diving into support hose. Zaks knows exactly what he’s doing with this material, as does McClure, and in these sequences the show effervesces and fizzes and sings.

Well, it doesn’t exactly sing. There’s a third elephant onstage, and it’s the songs. The music is often serviceable but unsparkling; the lyrics for the most part fade next to the book scenes. The team is clever, as demonstrated in a silly children’s song about telling time, in which Daniel — imagining himself as a television-show host — uses a looping machine to accompany himself. The many layered tracks of a dozen McClures singing at once gives us, for a moment, the Williams-esque sense of a million voices in one man. The Kirkpatricks are best with the stand-alone songs that don’t need to connect too tightly to the action around them. For instance, Charity Angél Dawson plays a minor character as the court liaison, but she shows up in Daniel’s nightmares to belt “Playing With Fire” so hard that it wakes the show right up. The rest of the time, though, the songs dissolve into forgettability. Occasionally they have forgotten each other. Lydia sings “you and Mom were always good at acting like the perfect pair” at the end of the show, but she opened the evening by singing “our home is a battleground.” Which was it?

So the show’s pleasures ebb and flow. I will say, I assumed that I’d find Mrs. Doubtfire dated and passé. Yet there’s a central proposal in it that is still radical. If you’ve read anything about the numbers of women leaving the workforce, the uneven burden placed on mothers, the crisis of underpaid child care and unpaid domestic labor, you know that Mrs. Doubtfire is still a utopian dream. In this fantasy of conscious uncoupling (with latex), Daniel places himself completely at his ex’s service and in the service of his children, uncomplainingly assuming all of the duties that he’s ignored for so long. In so doing, he manages to flourish creatively and emotionally. Mrs. Doubtfire, with kind-eyed Rob McClure learning his lessons about how to care for others, pitches its message right down the boulevard, in the middle of the road where such entertainments lie. But maybe that’s where these messages are most useful? I certainly hope a few straight couples who watched it went home and had a serious discussion about the division of labor. Anyway, poppets, I can dream.

Mrs. Doubtfire is at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

Mrs. Doubtfire Skirts the Problem