All the benefits of film, and all the limitations of theater when it lazily follows in a film’s footsteps, are starkly evident in the numbing, dull, and astonishingly flat Mrs. Doubtfire, which opens Sunday night on Broadway. Most infuriating: It’s showing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, which seems an especially egregious blasphemy.
The still-popular 1993 movie starred Robin Williams as Daniel Hillard, a man-child divorced from his wife who then drags up as an older Scottish female nanny to parent his own children and to earn money he needs to prove to the courts that he can be a responsible person. Mrs. Doubtfire eventually becomes a TV star, counseling America’s children—as her famous final speech goes—that there are all kinds of families, including divorced ones like Daniel’s, and to reassure the watching preteen masses that the world will go on.
Something terrible has happened in the translation from screen to stage. The benefits of close-ups are here absent. The benefits of editing are not here. So all the movie’s slapstick—can Daniel change into/out of drag in time to prevent discovery?; this is the entire plot—in real time just plays as a belabored endurance pantomime.
On screen, the magic of moviemaking meant that Robin Williams’ theatrics were thrilling to watch. On stage, Rob McClure as Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire works hard. This is not in doubt. McClure—excellent in the pre-pandemic Broadway reimagining of Beetlejuice—is charming but also oddly absent at the center of the production. His drag/out-of-drag performance is really like watching someone chop wood, carry that wood into a house, place it by the fire, and then return to chop more wood, and repeat until there is no more wood.
It is impressive to see McClure work himself into a state of frenzy, but there is nothing emotionally rooting beyond this physicality. What is it all for? you keep thinking. Daniel and wife Miranda (Jenn Gambatese) seem ill-suited and utterly lacking in chemistry (she seems more frustrated parent than partner), so you do not really care if they are together or not. Yes, they have children, but those children are clearly loved by both parents, so where is the tension?
The drag/discovery set-pieces go on an agonizingly long time—reasonably enough, because changing clothes takes a long time in this context—or are folded into hideously clunky songs. The film zipped along. The theater version grinds discordantly.
When it was translated to Broadway, Tootsie struggled with the same problem. We were encouraged to laugh at a straight guy dressing up as a woman—the taking off of clothes, the padding, the teeth, the prosthetic mask, the not-remembering to lower or raise the tone of the voice. But without the tightness of film editing, the scenes of transformation are long yawns of unfilled time.
Also, in 2021, is this still a joke? In an era where Drag Race reigns supreme, where young people are entertained by Drag Queen Story Times, and where the boundaries of gender and performance are blurred and much discussed, how innately funny is the idea of a man in a dress?
Mrs. Doubtfire is now set in the present day, but there is no deeper examination—and my goodness, this musical is long, it could have fit it in—of what Daniel is up to culturally, mimicking femininity to trick an actual woman, which plays as humiliation. No one asks him about gender presentation, or the lives, pleasures, dangers, and nuances faced by non-binary and trans folks (and the play, like the film, is set in San Francisco, for goodness’ sake).
In McClure’s big transformation scene—a big, drag-based song-and-dance sequence—the only funny line comes with positing the inspirations of Mrs. Doubtfire as Margaret Thatcher and Janet Reno, not traditional drag icons like Cher.
The story doesn’t know what it wants to be: comedy, circus, or Kramer vs. Kramer. On film, the beats of a screenplay allowed Robin Williams to fizz while executing the physical comedy, and then slow down to convincingly sketch a flailing doofus in a marriage he has undermined from within. More crucially, even though the wife’s part then, as now, is utterly sexist in its writing, the movie allowed Sally Field some space to shade Miranda beyond the basic sourpuss notes she is given. They both could play comedy. They both slowed down for the weepy bits.
The stage production careens bizarrely in and out of emotional registers. Poor Gambatese, as Miranda. The play sketches Miranda as a dreary nag, who is somehow in the wrong for requiring her husband take some responsibility in family life. She is the worst drawn character in the play, and utterly one-dimensional. She gets no jokes. In Act II she gets a big song, “Let Go,” expressing her feelings. But it’s a clunker, and it’s too late. She and Daniel have no sexual or romantic spark.
We have no sense of them being together, and so being apart does not seem so awful, especially as they seem so incompatible. What the hell happened to this marriage? The way it’s played, no one is terrible, so how and why on earth do these two get divorced, if only in the service of the plot?
How the play draws Miranda, and the misogyny and lack of character development it throws on her, ruins Mrs. Doubtfire, however much padding and palaver McClure deploys to continue his exhausting charade. Here is a show whose central joke is man-dresses-as-woman (which in itself becomes ever more stupid), which actively undermines its chief female character, who in fact is not in the wrong, who absolutely should expect more from her husband, and who shouldn’t be the default villain for expecting as much. Somebody get Gambatese a drink. There is no more thankless role on Broadway right now.
A similar killjoy mantle is borne by Charity Angél Dawson as social worker Wanda, relegated to finger-waggling at Daniel’s living arrangements, until she too is given a transformational song to light up the stage. Mrs. Doubtfire paints female responsibility, and a female insistence on responsibility, as constraining and oppressive, set against the male desire to play, which is seen as natural and expressive.
The show punishes Miranda for having expectations of her male partner, to make the most reasonable demands of him. Miranda’s song stating her unhappiness doesn’t really serve a game-changing purpose. You just sit there furious that she had to sing it in the first place to get Daniel’s attention about where he fell short.
In the movie, Pierce Brosnan played the fly in the ointment, the oleaginous Stuart, as both charming and smarmy. Brosnan was a delicious combination of suave and awful, playing against his Bond image as Miranda’s post-divorce paramour. You could see why Miranda would go for Stuart, and also cheer Mrs. Doubtfire as she sought to do him down.
But here, Mark Evans in the same role has not been given, or written, any edge—despite having one of the evening’s best songs, set in a gym, where all the other men working out act as an appreciative Greek chorus of the bicep king in their midst. He is less low-humming villain as Brosnan played him than inoffensive lunk.
The Hillard children (played by Analise Scarpaci, Jake Ryan Flynn, and Avery Sell) do cute and angst effectively enough but are as hobbled as their adult peers by simplistic characterization and plotting heavy-handedness.
In the film, Harvey Fierstein played Williams’ brother Frank as his makeup-deploying partner in crime, alongside boyfriend Jack (Scott Capurro). Here, Brad Oscar and J. Harrison Ghee play the roles, and at least inject some arch fun into some scenes (all based around helping Daniel evade discovery), but Ghee also questions—in one remark, never answered—why Daniel is doing what it is doing, as it seems to him to be an act of cruel deception.
A special cheer should go to the excellent, show-stealing/saving Peter Bartlett, who plays Mr. Jolly, a disconsolate children’s TV entertainer, who brings a swag bag of facial mugging and steals the show, playing a kind of Norma Desmond-meets-Mr. Rogers.
McClure’s final Doubtfire speech remains a tear duct-teasing gem of an ending—a lovely, perfect echo of Williams—that is then ruined by a climactic song-and-dance sequence because... well, who knows? Maybe because the thinking is, how else can a Broadway musical end? McClure’s undoubted hard work, and commitment to nailing all his outfit changes, is not enough to recast Mrs. Doubtfire as its own vibrant musical self, distinct from the movie. This is not a pale imitation, it’s a bad one. And a needless one.