The In-Person Broadway Experience: Mrs. Doubtfire The Musical on Broadway
To be honest, the secondary title of this piece is really “My Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC, Part 1 and 2.” I’m aware that this doesn’t make all that much sense, given that this show and its review has little to do with the great composer Stephen Sondheim. It is a bit on the abstract side, as the only thing that makes the secondary title relevant is that this new Broadway musical is being staged in his namesake theatre. But my “Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC” started standing outside the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Wednesday night, Dec 8th. It was the night that Broadway paid homage to the great American writer of musicals by dimming their lights at 630pm. I just had to be there to salute this man that changed the way I look and took in musicals. It just felt ever so right to be standing outside ‘his’ theatre on that night to take in the dimming of lights. I was also keenly aware that I was going to be returning to this same theatre later that week to see the latest movie-to-stage musical, Mrs. Doubtfire. Looking back, maybe I should have stood outside the theatre where the revival of Company, the legendary Sondheim musical that was being resurrected, reconfigured, and re-examined by director Marianne Elliott, was being staged, a show I was planning on seeing one week later, but, as a friend said to me the other night, I’m not Cher, and I can not turn back time so easily.
“Remember fun?” This is what the fantastically manic lead actor, Rob McClure (Broadway’s Beetlejuice), who plays both Daniel Hillard, the difficult husband, and the titular character, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire, the nanny who seems to know her way around the hearts of pretty much everyone she comes in contact with, says with wild abandonment to his perplexed done-with-it wife, Miranda, played like a Sally Field stand-in by Jenn Bambatese (Goodspeed’s Carousel). This is the perpetual standardized set-up for this fine and funny film-to-stage musical adaptation, Mrs. Doubtfire. The new musical comedy tries with all its musical might to hold on to every funny bit it can from the much more fun and funny 1993 film that starred the incomparable Robin Williams with Field as the other half of this troubled married couple at the core. And in a way, it succeeds, making the crowd laugh and laugh at everyone of those bits, but for this theatre junkie, I was more disappointed than amused.
Williams, in that iconic film, took the cross-dressing actor character (or should I say cross dressing character-actor character) to all kinds of hilarious heights, filling the film with manic fun at almost every turn. McClure somehow does the man justice, giving his most impressive work to date playing the character to a level that would make Williams proud. He makes it his own, against all odds, while simultaneously paying homage to the actor’s performance with each and every manic moment. The problem with this musical, and the others like it, is it always feels inauthentic and manufactured for mass consumption. Each funny bit from the film has to find its way into the stream-rolled scenario, whether it’s integral to the plot or not, and in this musical, with music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, and a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, the team that wrote the Broadway smash, Something Rotten!, there are moments after moments that are vacuum-danced into the scene just so we can all smile at its inclusion. Literally, there are no other reasons. In the film, they are original, clever, and surprising, but in this and many other film-to-stage translations, particularly these iconic films from the last few decades – yes, I’m talking to you, the not so pretty Pretty Woman The Musical and the much better Tootsie The Musical – they just don’t ring true, at least for this theatre junkie. They lack spontenaety and authenticity, and it always makes me feel somehow conned and manipulated. “What’s Wrong With This Picture” is all I can wonder.
The cast, especially those hard working ensemble players, do overtime slamming forth big scene after scene. That M Body fashion show and the parade of female icons felt forced and ridiculous, even as I acknowledged that they were an attempt, albeit misguided, to give us not-just-another rehashed moment. And here’s where Sondheim re-emerges in my mind. He once said in an interview “You can put songs in any story, but what you have to look for is, why are songs necessary to this story? If it’s unnecessary, then the show generally turns out to be not very good.” Here, on his namesake theatre, with a big over-the-top pop style as directed by Jerry Zaks (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!) and choreographed by Lorin Latarro (Public’s The Visitor), nothing about this musical seems necessary, yet everything needs to be included, most notably that forced “drive-by fruiting.” The songs are clumsy, meaningless, and completely forgettable (musical supervision, arrangements, orchestrations by Ethan Popp), even before you exit the theatre. They are generally well performed, but unremarkable by an eager cast of cardboard cut-out creations. Brad Oscar (Broadway’s Something Rotten!) as brother Frank, alongside J. Harrison Ghee (Paper Mill’s The Sting) as his boyfriend/partner Andre, are given token set-ups to check boxes rather than anything that resembles connection and emotion. They, like the Hillard children; Lydia, usually portrayed by Analise Scarpaci, but at this performance played by Maria Dalanno; Christopher, usually portrayed by Jake Ryan Flynn, but at this performance played by Sam Middleton; Natalie, played by Avery Sell; are given plenty to do and sell, but with very little creative rewards attached. As the handsome suiter of Miranda, Mark Evans (Broadway’s Waitress) portrays Stuart Dunmire admireably, but even his muscularity can’t save the paper thin part. The chemistry has no space to grow or develop, and he’s more of a chiselled prop than an emotional rival. He’s really just a sexy body, which doesn’t say much about Miranda, and the emotional attachment of the piece in general.
The only secondary role that is “Playing With Fire” in any way, shape, or form, is the electric Charity Angél Dawson (Broadway’s Side Show) as social worker Wanda Sellner. For the most part, she fulfills her piece in this generic puzzle, giving McClure his moments to basically say “Hello” with a whipped cream delight. But eventually in Act 2, she is given the opportunity to strut forward, delivering a number that is pretty much the closest thing to memorable one could ask for in this musical, although at this stage of the game I really couldn’t even hum a few bars from that or any song inside this “Just Pretend” musical.
The creative team; scenic designer David Korin (Broadway’s Hamilton); costume designer Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!); lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg (MTC Off-Broadway’s The Cake); and sound designer Brian Ronan (Broadway’s Mean Girls); do their due diligence, creating a solid consumer product ready for mass consumption on the Broadway and the touring stage, for the masses who will show up wanting to see something they don’t really have to put much thought into. Don’t get me totally wrong, it is a fun and funny ride, one that leaves you, maybe not empty, but definitely not satisfied or creatively full. You can only really compare it to those other previously mentioned adaptations. This commercial musical product is no where near the more emotionally relevant The Band’s Visit or even the deliciously fun Hairspray when we consider film-to-stage musical adaptations in the last decade or so. Those two are in a league of their own, far above the fine, but pointless Mrs. Doubtfire. Stephen Sondheim would probably have just asked, “Why?” and be done with it. I imagine. All I can say is that I’m going to be holding my breath for the Broadway transfer of ATC‘s Kimberly Akimbo, a much stronger new musical that deserves its Broadway bow much more than this tourist attraction.