No theater genre inspires more disdain among critics and other guardians of Broadway’s “purity” than the movie-to-musical adaptation. Taking a popular old film, adding songs, and turning it into a family-friendly Broadway show? Too crass, too unoriginal, too nakedly commercial. Begone!
Mrs. Doubtfire, a new musical based on the 1993 Robin Williams film, has come to Broadway with an even bigger load of baggage. Its farcical plot, about a divorced dad who disguises himself as a middle-aged Scottish nanny so he can spend more time with his kids, depends on the hoary old comic device of a man dressing up as a woman, in an era when transgender issues have become no laughing matter. Little wonder that the reliably woke critics have greeted the show with a chorus of boos.
I say unfair. Mrs. Doubtfire turns out to be a surprisingly entertaining Broadway confection: a little too frenetic and overstuffed, but slickly staged, blithely inoffensive, and easier to sit through than any movie-to-musical transformation I’ve seen since, oh, Groundhog Day in 2017. Which, naturally, got bad reviews too.
The first thing Mrs. Doubtfire has going for it is its Mrs. Doubtfire. Rob McClure, a Broadway veteran of shows like Chaplin and Honeymoon in Vegas, may be the only person around who could come close to matching Robin Williams’ galvanic, peripatetic performance in the movie. He zips through lightning-quick costume changes (Jerry Zaks’s sleight-of-hand staging is actually more impressive than the film, because it’s done in front of our eyes, in real time), delivers quicksilver impressions (from Donald Trump to Lord of the Rings), and holds the whole thing together with his nimble, ingratiating stage presence.
The next thing that impressed me was how smoothly and clearly the show manages the elaborate farcical plot (from Dad’s machinations to deceive a social worker to his reinvention as a children’s-TV-show host), while respecting its valid emotional core — a father’s inability to connect with his wife and kids until he steps outside of his role as husband and father altogether. Using Broadway shorthand on a confined stage to reproduce what moviemakers have spent months of shooting and editing to achieve — it’s no mean feat. Mrs. Doubtfire makes it look easy.
The musical numbers (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, last on Broadway with the hit Shakespearean sendup Something Rotten!) are mostly generic and unmemorable, as they toggle between Broadway bounce and Broadway schmaltz. But they are occasionally clever, well integrated into the story, and in a couple of cases (like a bravura comic number in which Mrs. Doubtfire has to cook up a dinner with the help of a battery of online chefs) pick it up quite a bit.
As for the cross-dressing, it’s largely a non-issue. In contrast, say, to another cross-dressing comedy turned into a (worse) Broadway musical, Tootsie, the show isn’t really about gender switching. If anything, its satire is directed at the American family’s willingness to outsource its child rearing to kindly strangers with sensible shoes and foreign accents.
Still, almost every critic of the show has expressed at least some degree of disapproval. “You can sense the production trying to appeal to the largest number of folks, without getting rapped on the knuckles for insensitivity,” wrote one reviewer, derisively. My response: quite so. The show has scrubbed out any jokes from the film that might have gotten knuckles rapped; added a gay couple adopting a baby, for some PC cred; and is certainly trying to appeal to the largest number of folks. What, exactly, is wrong with that?