In the 1993 movie “Mrs. Doubtfire,” you feel sorry for Robin Williams because he loves his kids so much that he dresses up like an old Scottish nanny to be with them. In the new Broadway musical based on that modern classic, you feel sorry for Rob McClure because he not only has to wear a rubbery face-and-neck mask but a heavy wool sweater and skirt over a big fat body suit made out of polyurethane or God-only-knows-what. It’s especially cumbersome when McClure replicates the restaurant scene from the movie where his Daniel character must go in and out of disguise to eat dinner with his family at one table and his prospective boss at another. In the movie, it’s funny. On stage, it’s just laborious and, yes, painful to watch McClure work so hard, tearing in and out of all that plastic over and over again.
“Mrs. Doubtfire,” the stage musical, opened Sunday at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre, and before the infamous restaurant scene, there is a show-stopping number, “Playing With Fire,” that features at least a dozen Mrs. Doubtfires singing and dancing and pushing brooms that nearly sweep the beleaguered star off the stage. You may wonder: Does McClure have real nightmares about getting in and out of that humongous Doubtfire costume (by Catherine Zuber) umpteen times per performance?
Not since Brian d’Arcy James replicated a green troll in the musical “Shrek” has a stage actor been more buried in a lookalike movie costume than McClure. James reported that it took him two hours before every performance to get into his Shrek suit. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” McClure takes two and a half hours renegotiating his nanny drag before our very eyes.
McClure’s is a great musical comedy performance, but did Zuber and Tommy Kurzman (makeup and prosthetics design) have to replicate the exact look of the movie’s Mrs. Doubtfire? The attention to detail shows, unfortunately, and near the end of the musical, when McClure rips off that head mask to rub his real skin and scalp back to life, who in the audience cannot identify as a fellow mask wearer?
McClure is every bit as accomplished as Williams in playing an unemployed voice actor who’s able to jump in and out of characters without the benefit of wigs and makeup. Jerry Zaks directs with his usual stage mastery, and in the opening moments of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” he manages to set with breathtaking speed the story of a broken family and the estranged father’s solution for being with his kids. It’s the great gift of musical theater. What takes half an hour in a movie or play can be achieved quickly in a musical, where characters often fall in love with just one song.
Daniel’s brother, the Harvey Fierstein character from the movie, now has a gender-fluid spouse, expert at hair and makeup. Leading the disco anthem “Make Me a Woman,” Brad Oscar and J. Harrison Ghee go places never even dreamed of 20 years ago by Mel Brooks in that ultimate Uncle Bruce musical, “The Producers.” The makeover into Mrs. Doubtfire is as flashy as it is fast.
Efficiency takes this “Mrs. Doubtfire” only so far. Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick’s songs are generic pop, indistinguishable from what’s heard in “Trevor” or “Aladdin.” Since most of the characters are drawn from a J. Crew catalog, they don’t have much reason to sing. Maybe that’s why one big production number is an online cooking class (“Easy Peasy”) and another is a fashion show for athletic wear (“The Shape of Things to Come”).
The blessed economy of Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book at the beginning of Act 1 is fleeting. The whole second act is bloated by songs (“He Lied to Me,” “Just Pretend,” “As Long as There Is Love”) that the characters are then forced to discuss with each other at length.
When “Mrs. Doubtfire” the movie opened in 1993, before White Male Privilege became a talking point, it was considered shocking, just shocking, that a straight white male could suffer any form of discrimination; when they did, these men deserved our attention. Now, they’re seen as what they are: whiny losers.
The “Mrs. Doubtfire” musical does break some new ground. It may be the first to end with an ode to the virtues of divorce, one that exposes the sham marriage all these years between “Tootsie” and “Kramer v. Kramer.”