**** / *****
At the peak of Robin Williams’ career as a standup comic most other comics dreaded going on stage after one of the manic funnyman’s sets. He so dominated the audience and raised the level of energy in the room that whoever followed him in a comedy club was bound to have a bad set.
So it was with this same feeling in mind that his fans viewed the announcement that his beloved 1993 comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire—about a man in the middle of a divorce who will do anything to stay with his children—was being turned into a Broadway musical. Never mind that the material didn’t seem to lend itself to song, but who, we all thought, would possibly attempt to fill the late comic’s shoes? It felt like a disaster in the making. But lo’ and behold . . .
Isn’t it a joy to be pleasantly, unexpectedly surprised? Somehow the team that put together Mrs. Doubtfire – The Musical managed, through minor updates and tweaks, to make the production feel both modern and true to the original. It features songs ranging from the Donna Summers-esque disco (“Make Me a Woman”) to a wicked, show-stopping metal number (“Playing with Fire”) worthy of Megadeth or Judas Priest belted out, unexpectedly, by the family’s social worker, Wanda (a supremely talented Charity Angél Dawson).
In Doubtfire, the team from the 2015 hit Broadway comedy Something Rotten!—Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (book) and Wayne Kirkpatick and Karey Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics)—have kept the story as close to the original as possible, tossing out dated and culturally tone-deaf material and adding songs that serve as emotional punctuations (usually joyous, but occasionally somber) to established scenes, while lightening the mood, quickening the pace and eliminating some of the original pathos. Divorce, it seems, is a more manageable family matter in 2021 than in 1993.
In both the film and the musical, Mrs. Doubtfire is wholly reliant on the performance of the title role. As a man who decides to dress in drag in order to land a job as his family’s elderly Scottish nanny so that he can spend time with his children, few could have equaled the wild energy and improvisational genius of Williams (it’s impossible to tell, in his better films, what was scripted and what he came up with on the spot). But the utterly brilliant Rob McClure more than measures up as the protagonist, Daniel Hillard. While much of his dialog is a straight lift from the movie, he adds his own flavor and panache, and sings beautifully to boot. He’s supported by a stellar cast, including Brad Oscar as his hairdresser brother who, with the assistance of his wonderful husband Andre (played by the delightfully funny and sharp J. Harrison Ghee), help transform Daniel into the twee housekeeper. And Jenn Gambatese, as Daniel’s ambitious and fed-up wife Miranda, is played with a lighter, more sympathetic touch than Sally Field’s more acerbic and depressing Miranda in the original. Fun smaller roles abound, including the delightful Calvin L. Cooper as Loopy Lenny, whose pathetic children’s television show is ultimately taken over by Daniel as Doubtfire, but without shutting him out.
Director Jerry Zaks has wisely taken this production in a lighter direction, making an ostensibly angst-producing subject more lighthearted and sillier than it should be. Lorrin Lotarro’s delightful choreography along with Catherine Zuber’s whimsical costumes (especially in the modelling of potential “women” Daniel can become, from Cher to Eleanor Roosevelt) augment the lighter touches, reinforcing the theme.
In an early Broadway season filled with disappointments and heavy-handed productions that are keeping already-reluctant audiences at bay, Mrs. Doubtfire the Musical is one of the most attractive new productions that are inviting to those wanting to indulge in fun Broadway fare that’s not on the regular rotations of “classics” that have been running for years and that most visitors have already seen. It’s a worthwhile night out with guaranteed laughs.