The stage adaptation of the beloved ’90s Robin Williams film is having its world premiere in Seattle, before moving straight to Broadway this spring. It’s a huge production with lovely design, and content that includes both fun updates and eye-rolling (and potentially harmful) trope. It runs through Saturday.
Few things can generate as much thrill among new theatrical work as an already-solidified assurance, This one’s headed for Broadway. But such is the case for the new musical Mrs. Doubtfire, which heads to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on March 9, after closing its extended premiere at The 5th Avenue Theatre. The new musical, by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics) and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (book), entered two weeks of Seattle previews on November 29 before opening on December 13.
Some new works — think Hamilton and Slave Play as recent exemplars — seal their Broadway success by being new and interesting, and provocative by design. Mrs. Doubtfire, in contrast, seems resolute in taking the opposite approach: rehash a trope from the early ’90s, center it on a topic as made-for-sitcom as can be (an apolitical, upper-middle-class White family), and work in enough updates (celebrity chefs, YouTube videos) and “edginess” (ooh look, an interracial gay couple!) to bring it into modern times. Between the name recognition and the blandness of the “universal” family appeal, the Broadway run shouldn’t have any trouble selling tickets to intergenerational families of tourists.
As for the show itself? Directed by Jerry Zaks, it’s a terrific production of a lively show that feels modern, even as it harkens back to the ’90s-classic movie. Design elements are fantastic, particularly a San Francisco skyline backdrop that’s suspended in stage-light fog, and robust sets (scenic design by David Korins) that change over seamlessly from one location to the next. The cast is loaded and generally well-matched, chiefly in Rob McClure (who masters some very difficult vocal theatrics, as both Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire), Analise Scarpaci (who has the bulk of the lines among the trio of children), and the comedic timing of J. Harrison Ghee and Brad Oscar (the duo who transforms Daniel into the title character). The musical numbers, which sound like multi-genre modern pop radio, are enjoyable, if largely forgettable. A soaring solo by Charity Angél Dawson — who plays Wanda, an uninspiring court liaison — is a standout, thanked with thunderous applause. Nods to current technology, along with the current-feeling music, let the stage adaptation feel updated but not transformed.
It’s also a show with a messaging problem on several fronts, one that likely could have been alleviated with transparent interaction with transgender communities and people of color during the development process. This one is polished with a very cisgender gay White male sheen — and when you’re making work that clearly will affect other communities, that’s not a good look.
Among the issues:
On women. In conjuring up his identity, Daniel brings out an imagined parade of esteemed women he wishes to emulate — whom he characterizes as the ugly, old, fat ones. It dilutes the attempt at supposed body-positive messaging later on.
On trans people. Most of the overt (albeit relatively tame) anti-trans jokes of the film have been removed, and that’s a good thing. They’re replaced with a song called “You Created a Monster” and a montage of some 15 Mrs. Doubtfire likenesses storming the stage. I interpreted it as the character taking over the human. Others among the trans community have decried its reference to stereotypical derogatory terms lobbed at trans women. (See below for more on the “Nannyzilla” scene.)
On appropriation. Daniel gets an opportunity and an idea only because a Black DJ appears on the show, then grabs the mic and lands the slot instead (as a White rapper). It’s a familiar staging device — have Black people there exclusively to be entertaining and useful to the White people.
On exoticism. The restaurant “reveal” scene takes place in a Spanish restaurant with extended flamenco dancing scenes, for no apparent purpose other than to say Look at us, we’re exotic. It goes on for a bizarrely long time.
Note: the above are my own observations during the show. Read observations from others — specifically non-binary and trans artists, and queer artists of color — in a piece here (Seattle Times).
And then there are the intangibles, which strip out what really made the movie a classic for those of us who grew up with it: the charm. Even with its problems (some trope that didn’t hold up well, and some jokes that never should have been made), it’s a heartwarming movie. Robin Williams (as the title character) is of course a big, and irreplaceable, part of that. But it was in the characters, too. In the film, Daniel is a doting father who occasionally screws up big — the last straw with his wife (Miranda, played by Sally Field) was trashing their house with a portable petting zoo at their son’s birthday; and the last straw at work was refusing to play along with a cartoon character who was happily smoking — but it’s always for his kids. The film’s Miranda is easy to identify with: she’s connected to Daniel and her kids, but she’s exasperated and exhausted, at her wit’s end. In order to get back in his kids’ lives, and perhaps show his best side again to his wife, Daniel does a couple of little tricks to present himself as the best option to care for the kids and the house, in disguise. At the end, we don’t know if the family will ever reunite, but we do know we like them all together, without disguise.
The musical adaptation keeps the plot intact, of course — but it strips much of the charm. Here, Daniel probably does love his kids, but we don’t see it from his actions; mostly, he’s just a screw-up. In this version, he invites a stripper over to his son’s party (allegedly by mistake), and he screws off too much at work for no reason other than self-entertainment. He tells us — and the custody hearing judge — the kids are the center of his life, but he never shows it. He’s immature and selfish. Miranda looks done with him and ready to move on, regardless of his relationship with the kids. And whether it’s the character writing, the direction, or the acting (by the accomplished Jenn Gambatese), her personality seems terribly flat. The two characters are a poor match. At the end, it seems they likely won’t reunite, and it’s hard to care.
In both versions, the nanny (Mrs. Doubtfire, or Daniel in disguise) is a better version of him. In the film, his invented character is an extension of him — a person so good with kids because he has the heart of one, but in slightly more responsible form when dressed as an older Scottish woman. In the staged version, it’s very much a disguise, someone he needs to grow into. It feels more deceptive. And it also leads to an identity crisis (which I’ll call the “Nannyzilla” sequence), in which Daniel dreams his invention is taking him over, as some 15 Mrs. Doubtfires storm the stage, looking like a mashup of Godzilla and Thriller zombies and King Kong.
In the film, the scene would be out of place, and unnecessary. In the stage adaptation, it’s one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes, in a show that’s otherwise not terribly memorable. But given the concerns noted earlier, it’s worth revisiting the scene to see whether the “monster” terminology can be dropped (my guess is yes), in favor of something more precise in this case (haunting comes to mind).
Vivid design elements and McClure’s acting are standouts. Outside of that, will most audiences be talking about this show a day, a week, or longer after seeing it? I doubt it. The only things people are apt to talk about long after are the optics (The 5th lost Stu for Silverton, about an actual trans woman, without explanation, and effectively replaced it with this one); and the measures of harm done to traditionally underrepresented communities, particularly trans women. When the biggest talking point around your “comedy” is whether you did enough damage control, that’s not a promising artistic investment.
The result is a strong production with a big asterisk. It’s a fun* show. If you don’t think too much about why you’re laughing, and at whose expense.
The verdict: recommended for production value, with reservations.
If you go: watch the movie again first, have fun, enjoy the scenery, and think critically about what you’re seeing — and laughing at — throughout. And take advantage of the ticket deals The 5th has been offering, including $20 tickets for certain dates (see the theatre’s Facebook feed for details) and rush tickets.
Mrs. Doubtfire runs through 1/4 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets up to $189, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: discount and rush ticket options are available; see policies here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.