Review | Did Broadway really need a ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ musical?

Left to right: Avery Sell (Natalie Hillard), Jake Ryan Flynn (Christopher Hillard), Analise Scarpaci (Lydia Hillard), Jenn Gambatese (Miranda Hillard) and Rob McClure (Daniel Hillard as Euphegenia Doubtfire)
Photo by Joan Marcus

“You look like grandma kinda crossed with Shrek,” a teenage boy tells his father – who happens to be wearing a latex mask, wig, and body suit in order to disguise himself as an elderly nanny with a vaguely Scottish accent – in the well-meaning but underwhelming new Broadway musical adaptation of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which stars a hard-working Rob McClure as (to quote the original screenplay) the “hip old granny who can hip-hop, bebop, dance till ya drop and yo, make a wicked cup of cocoa.”

Like a number of other musicals (including “Company,” which will also open on Broadway this week), “Mrs. Doubtfire” was in previews at the time of the shutdown in March 2020. Doreen Montalvo, who originally played the supporting role of TV CEO Janet Lundy, died during the shutdown following a stroke. Impressively, Analise Scarpaci, Jake Ryan Flynn, and Avery Sell, who played the three Hillard children back in 2020, have all returned to the show, even though they appear to have somewhat outgrown the roles.

As someone who grew up during the 1990s, I saw “Mrs. Doubtfire” at my local cinema in 1993 and then proceeded to watch the VHS repeatedly – to the point where I still remember the movie scene by scene and line by line. I still consider the film – a buoyant family comedy that is really a drama about the pain that occurs when a family drifts apart – to be especially well-made and meaningful, with an important message for children about divorce and an endearing performance by Robin Williams as struggling actor and loving father Daniel Hillard that shows him at his most versatile and freewheeling.

Like so many other musicals based on well-known films that are readily available today (I was even able to stream the movie on my way to the show, on my cell phone, using the Disney+ app), “Mrs. Doubtfire” brings up the inevitable question of why the film has been adapted to a musical and what if anything the adaptation adds to the film – besides the opportunity to witness Daniel’s wardrobe transformation into Mrs. Doubtfire live and up close.

The musical has been written by Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and John O’Farrell (who wrote the wild and crazy Shakespeare-meets-musical comedy “Something Rotten!”) and has direction by Jerry Zaks (a specialist in revivals of classic musicals who restarted his career with “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler and is currently working on “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman).

For the most part, the stage adaptation is competent but labored, with a weak, unmemorable score and a book that leans heavily on the gags and construction of the original film while adding some updated pop culture references (including Daniel doing the “voices” of Borat and Gollum).

It works best at its most irreverent, as exemplified by a celebratory disco number led by Brad Oscar (as Daniel’s brother Frank, who works as a hair and makeup designer) and J. Harrison Ghee (as Frank’s professional and romantic partner Andre). As the two imaine how to turn Daniel into Mrs. Doubtfire, ensemble members make appearances as both glamorous  (Donna Summer, Princess Diana, Cher) and unglamorous (Margaret Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julie Child) celebs.

The musical carefully alters the dynamic between Daniel and his ex-wife Miranda (played in the film by Sally Field, played here by Jenn Gambatese), making her bubblier and less abrasive while emphasizing that Daniel necessitated the divorce through his immature and self-centered behavior.

At the end, the show takes the film’s message about families up a notch by emphasizing not only families with divorced parents but also families with single parents, foster parents, and same-sex parents, which leads to a warm-hearted finale that leaves you tempted to forgive and forget much of the preceding two and a half hours.

It should be noted that “Mrs. Doubtfire” plays at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, which was renamed in honor of Sondheim (who died less than two weeks ago at the age of 91) in 2010. One hopes that future musicals that play the theater will be ones that at least make a good faith effort to live up to Sondheim’s innovative standards, as opposed to continuing the never-ending cycle of churning middlebrow musicals out of familiar movies. I mean, seriously, did Broadway really need a musical of “Mrs. Doubtfire” less than three years after a musical of “Tootsie”?

“Mrs. Doubtfire” plays an open run at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., mrsdoubtfirebroadway.com