Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Mrs. Doubtfire (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If anyone could approximate the late Robin Williams’ peerless work in the funny and heartfelt 1993 film on which the present musical is based, Rob McClure is surely the guy. You’ll recall the film concerned an irrepressible voiceover actor Daniel Hillard, prevented from seeing his three kids after his wife files for divorce, who impersonates an elderly English lady and becomes the children’s nanny to be close to them.

Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book follows the movie script (by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, based on Anne Fine’s young adult novel “Alias Mrs. Doubtfire”) closely, changing the plot only where the exigencies of a stage versus movie presentation demand (like revising the elaborate birthday party with zoo animals that Daniel throws for his son, triggering wife Miranda’s divorce action). They’ve also smoothed out some small plot elements that might not go over well in today’s #MeToo environment. And there’s more diversity in the casting, too. They also make a point of Mrs. Doubtfire being a Scottish, rather than an English, nanny as in the film, though the accent is the same.

The score by Kirkpatrick and brother Wayne Kirkpatrick (“Something Rotten”) is a mixed bag. There are some very pretty numbers mixed in with other loud and generic ones, not anywhere near as cohesive as David Yazbek’s score for the last based-on-a-film drag themed musical, “Tootsie.”

And speaking of “Tootsie,” I can see McClure getting heaps of awards recognition at season’s end, as Santino Fontana did with the earlier show. 

As Miranda, Jenn Gambatese gives a lovely and sympathetic performance just as Sally Field did in the film, and scores with the regret-filled ballad, “Let Go.” As in the film, the writers are careful to show Daniel’s behavior at the start is so patently obnoxious that one can hardly blame Miranda for filing for divorce. 

There were several understudies at my reviewed performance, including Casey Garvin as Miranda’s old flame Stuart (Pierce Brosnan in the movie), and Alexandra Matteo as a flamenco singer in the show’s climactic restaurant scene where Daniel’s quick change disguise finally defeats him. Matteo’s rendering of the song “He Lied To Me,” mirroring Daniel’s duplicitous actions, was a stitch. It has much the same vibe as the nightclub singer in “On the Town,” bemoaning “I Wish I Was Dead,” to the intense discomfort of that show's Gabey character. Both Garvin and Matteo were excellent. And Mrs. Doubtfire’s cautionary advice to Stuart about staying away from Miranda was well performed by Garvin and McClure in the amusing duet “Big Fat No.” 

McClure creates a quite lovable Mrs. Doubtfire, after letting us hear all the other myriad voices of which he’s capable, and his onstage quick changes are remarkable for their dexterity. He’s satisfyingly similar to Robin Williams (with perhaps a little Dame Edna thrown in for good measure). My only carp was the high pitched, nervous giggle he’d emit under duress as Mrs. Doubtfire. I felt those moments undercut his generally dignified characterization. He’s also touchingly believable as a loving dad who genuinely doesn’t want to be separated from his kids.

The great Brad Oscar assumes Harvey Fierstein’s movie role of Daniel’s gay hairdresser brother Frank, although with some wearisome schtick involving talking louder and louder when he lies. 

Jodi Kimura is amusing as the humorless producer Janet Lundy where Daniel works as a janitor. (That was Robert Prosky in the film, with some now verboten sexist humor.) And there’s the always funny Peter Bartlett as the loopy children’s TV host Mr. Jolly, eventually replaced by Daniel.

Jerry Zaks is a master of comedy direction, but I did feel on this occasion some of his business was a bit too broad. A visit to Daniel’s apartment where Frank and his business partner/husband Andre (J. Harrison Ghee) converges with the child protection worker --- Wanda Sellner (Charity AngĂ©l Dawson) -- an occurrence not in the film, strains credulity even for a farce. So, too, the show, in general, occasionally dips into vulgarity in a way the movie seldom did.

There’s been some necessary updating in the script as the show is set in the present. For example, Mrs. Doubtfire now doesn’t just stop the kids from watching TV (Dick Van Dyke reruns), she cuts off the Wi-Fi on their device screens.

The kids are an outstandingly appealing bunch, as were their counterparts  in the film: Lydia (Analise Scarpaci), Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), and little Natalie (Avery Sell).

Dawson is solid as her stern role, but her big gospel flavored number “Playing with Fire” is an incomprehensible jumble -- perhaps due, as with so many current musicals, to an occasionally overloaded sound design (Brian Ronan). That number, cleverly choreographed by Lorin Latarro incidentally, has multiple Mrs. Doubtfires popping up like Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of “Fantasia.” Her opening verse of the show’s final number, “As Long As There is Love,” registers much better, and the song itself is another of the bright spots in the Kirkpatricks’ score. 

David Korins’s scenic design, expertly lit by Philip S. Rosenberg, efficiently covers the San Francisco locale bases from Hillard home to TV studio and points in between; Catherine Zuber has designed a satisfying look for Daniel’s disguise (abetted by hair & wig designer David Brian Brown and and make-up & prosthetics designer Tommy Kurzman), and has fun with the aforementioned faux celebrity parade. 

I emphatically disagree with those who have said the central drag premise is dated and out of touch with today’s sensibilities, and perhaps even transphobic. Apart from stemming from a long-standing and grand theatrical tradition, the character of Mrs. Doubtfire is created out of love not mockery. And for those who feel it’s “wrong” for Daniel to carry out the deception in the first place, I think that’s carrying wokeness a bit far.   For all its flaws, the show has a lot of heart, plenty of genuinely funny moments, and an excellent cast, topped by McClure’s bravura performance.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street; 212-239-6200 or

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l-r) Jake Ryan Flynn (Christopher Hillard), Analise Scarpaci (Lydia Hillard), Rob McClure (Daniel Hillard as Euphegenia Doubtfire) and Avery Sell (Natalie Hillard)

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