What it lacks in fresh laugh-out-loud moments, honest-to-goodness heart, and sonic earworms you can’t wait to hear again, the new Broadway musical Mrs. Doubtfire tries hard to make up for with cranked-up performances and a busy, busy, busy tone. No such luck. For all of the calories burned, it’s still low-impact.
The show retraces a 1993 Robin Williams big-screen blockbuster, and that iconic star turn inevitably looms large at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. As musical comedies go, there’s little doubt this one opens on a downbeat note: The Hillard family falls apart in their San Francisco home.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” a daughter asks as her father, Daniel (Rob McClure), a self-centered man-boy actor, botches best-laid plans for a family portrait. Daniel’s fed-up, long-suffering wife, Miranda (Jenn Gambatese), a rising designer, files for divorce and he’s out of the picture.
Daniel enlists his brother Frank (Brad Oscar), a makeup artist, and his husband Andre (J. Harrison Ghee), along with a ton of latex for a mask and bodysuit, to create a disguise. He poses as a Scottish nanny to stay close to his children Natalie (Avery Sell), Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), and Lydia (Analise Scarpaci). Mrs. Doubtfire is a prim caregiver who calls people “poppet” and sticks to the rules — the opposite of Daniel.
The always nimble McClure (Chaplin) gamely throws himself into the nutty nanny’s antics and brrr-ing brogue. He’s arguably the hardest-working actor on Broadway right now as he channels Williams and ping-pongs madly between Mrs. D and Daniel, whose masquerade makes him a better man. Still, there’s the nagging feeling that you’ve seen it all before. Tootsie, the 1982 film turned 2019 Broadway musical, had the same issue.
The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell smartly preserves movie sight gags involving a vacuum cleaner and cake frosting, but comes up short in terms of much original zing. After discovering his dad’s disguise, Christopher gets the best line: “You look like Grandma kinda crossed with Shrek.” It’s true. Aside from helping to set the story in the present, the remark preempts questions about Mrs. D’s unusual face. Tommy Kurzman designed the makeup and prosthetics.
The score by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick is varied and summons pop, disco, and power ballads to nudge the story along. The songs are more capable than catchy. Missing is the hummable fun the Kirkpatricks came up with for tunes in their 2015 Broadway show, Something Rotten!
Director Jerry Zaks, the seasoned and reliable pro who guided the ace 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!, appears to have given the entire cast the same note: Perform BIGGER! But even a farce can go overboard. With everyone pushing so hard, it drives away the audience. More isn’t necessarily more.
That holds true for hyper production numbers choreographed by Lorin Latarro: “Easy Peasy,” when Daniel cooks a spatchcocked chicken; “Playing With Fire,” when Daniel’s court liaison Wanda (Charity Angél Dawson) issues a warning; “Big Fat No,” when Mrs. D undermines Miranda’s boyfriend Stu (Mark Evans); and “The Mr. Jolly Show,” when we meet a wacky TV host (Peter Bartlett). And there’s more.
Mrs. Doubtfire calms down just in time for an evergreen teachable moment. Mrs. D gently reminds that families come in all varieties, which brings the story full circle. But by then you’ve had to get through “Make Me a Woman,” a stereotype-stuffed number covering Daniel’s transformation.
In the end, the less said the better about the pivotal moment when Daniel’s ruse is fully exposed. Wearing little more than blobby flesh-toned padding, McClure recalls a raw oversized spatchcocked chicken. You can’t unsee that, poppets.