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Strange as it may be to say, getting shut down by the pandemic during previews last year might have been the best thing to happen to the new Broadway musical Mrs. Doubtfire. For one thing, the long hiatus gave some breathing room between this adaptation of the hit 1993 movie starring Robin Williams and Tootsie, the short-lived Broadway musical also revolving around a straight man who dresses in drag. For another, it provided the opportunity for the creators to do some apparently much-needed tinkering, as evidenced by early reports. Finally, the long theatrical dry spell has created a renewed appetite for a feel-good, family-friendly musical comedy. At a late preview performance, you could feel the audience’s desire to simply relax and have a good time.
And if you aren’t too picky about it, this lively musical featuring a score by sibling Something Rotten! composers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick delivers just that. Largely faithful to the film — yes, Mrs. Doubtfire once again sets her falsies on fire — the show doesn’t rise far enough above its source material to seem anything more than extraneous. But it delivers enough solid laughs to compensate for it being yet another in a seemingly endless procession of uninspired screen-to-stage musical adaptations.
Much of the credit for that goes to its supremely hard-working star, Rob McClure, who was faced with the unenviable task of attempting to match the peerless Williams as Daniel, the voice actor who desperately resorts to impersonating an elderly female Scottish nanny in order to spend time with his children after a marital separation. The actor has been doing outstanding comedic stage work for years in such shows as Chaplin (for which he was Tony- nominated), Honeymoon in Vegas, the Encores! production of Where’s Charly? and, most recently, Beetlejuice. His star-making performance here should put him firmly in contention for next year’s Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical (although his upcoming competition, including Hugh Jackman in The Music Man and Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night, is formidable).
Veteran stage director Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Hello Dolly!) fortunately keeps the show’s pace brisk enough to compensate for its ultra-predictable elements. If anything, the production seems to be trying too hard, throwing in more characters, comic situations, and superfluous-feeling production numbers than the story needs. It works best when simply showcasing McClure’s hilariously manic performance, which manages to imitate many elements of Williams’ classic turn while finding fresh aspects. The actor is also terrific in his quieter scenes, beautifully conveying his character’s deep love for his children and providing the show’s heartbeat.
It helps that the children are excellently played by Analise Scarpaci, Jake Ryan Flynn and the adorable moppet Avery Sell, with Scarpaci in particular nearly stealing the show with her emotionally complex, beautifully sung performance as teen daughter Lydia. The trio is well spotlighted in one of the show’s more amusing numbers, “What the Hell.”
Too often, though, the narrative momentum is derailed by overly elaborate musical numbers that aim to be showstoppers but fall short of the mark. When the hapless Daniel attempts to cook a meal with the aid of an online video, the stage becomes littered with singing and dancing chefs who are interrupted by a commercial for irritable bowel syndrome medication. When he asks his gay brother Frank and Frank’s husband Andre (Brad Oscar and J. Harrison Ghee, talented performers wasted here) for help in “Make Me a Woman,” we’re presented with campy versions of Princess Diana, Jackie O., Grace Kelly, Cher and Donna Summers, among others. Just like Tootsie, the show features a chorus line ensemble version of its title character, although in this case they wind up clog dancing. And while the scenes featuring a riotous Peter Bartlett as washed-up children’s television show host Mr. Jolly are undeniably amusing, they could be easily cut.
The book, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, features as many groaners as witty lines. Particularly grating is the running gag involving one of the characters loudly shouting whenever he’s forced to lie. Daniel’s beleaguered wife Miranda (Jenn Gambatese, gamely struggling with an underwritten role) comes across with marginally more depth than in the film, although her emotive second act ballad, “Let Go,” only slows the show down.
The writers also try to give depth to her love interest Stuart (Mark Evans) via the number “Big Fat No,” in which Daniel, as Mrs. Doubtfire, attempts to eliminate his competition. But it mainly serves to showcase the actor’s physique in such tight-fitting athletic wear that it provides the opportunity for a joke about “moose knuckles,” which will presumably fly over the head of younger audience members.
Ultimately, Mrs. Doubtfire rests on the shoulders of its star, and McClure more than proves up to the task. Indeed, he displays such consistent antic energy that you find yourself wondering whether he’ll possibly be able to sustain it for eight shows a week. If the show manages to have a lengthy run, which seems likely, his shoes will ultimately be as hard to fill as Williams’ were. And that’s saying something.
Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theater
Cast: Rob McClure, Jenn Gambatese, Peter Bartlett, Charity Angel Dawson, Mark Evans, J. Harrison Ghee, Analise Scarpaci, Jake Ryan Flynn, Avery Sell, Brad Oscar
Music & lyrics: Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatick
Book: Karey Kirpatrick, John O’Farrell
Director: Jerry Zaks
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Music supervision, arrangements & orchestrations: Ethan Popp
Scenic designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Catherine Zubber
Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Presented by Kevin McCollum, Jamie Wilson, Gavin Kalin, Hunter Arnold, Todd & Katie Boehly, LAMS Productions, Bob Cohen, Isaac Robert Hurwitz, Crossroads Live, Barbara Freitag, IPN, Cecilia Lin/Sing Out Louise, Option Up Entertainment, Boyett/Miller, Ayal Miodovnik, Bard Theatricals, Kilimanjaro Theatricals/Broadway Factor NYC, Lucas McMahon
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