A face smothered in banana cream has already sprung out from behind a refrigerator door. A silicone breast plate has been scorched over a stovetop. A man dressed like Margaret Thatcher on her day off has boogied with a vacuum cleaner.
“Mrs. Doubtfire,” a polished and pandering new musical from Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, has been dutifully trotting the bases of its source material (the 1993 film starring Robin Williams) for two hours by the time an aggrieved daughter pleads with her dad: “Please tell me you have a plan to end all of this.”
Lydia (played by young standout Analise Scarpaci) may be referring to the drawn-out and predictable comedy of disguise in which she has been woefully caught. But her weary impatience could just as easily apply to the rote and persistent assembly line of commercial Broadway musicals fabricated from VHS favorites. Bemoaning their unoriginality, stale perpetuation of nostalgia and money-grabbing impetus has become a cliché pastime all its own.
But even in the belabored tradition of screen-to-stage musical adaptations, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is doggedly risk-averse, opting for handsomely outfitted, faithful simulacrum over reinvention or surprise. “Hairspray” it is not.
Yes, there is a dream-sequence chorus line of many Mrs. Doubtfires, swishing their brooms this way and that (the choreography is by Lorin Latarro). Rachael Ray and Paula Deen lookalikes break free from YouTube to conduct the hapless nanny’s famously disastrous dinner prep — in a tap number featuring a rubber chicken. Mrs. Doubtfire dances the worm.
But between mildly amusing bits of stagecraft from director Jerry Zaks, the writing team, Tony-nominated for the shamelessly silly Elizabethan romp “Something Rotten!,” bring little ingenuity or panache to musicalizing familiar material. Lines — and line readings — lifted directly from the movie are spoon-fed to fans throughout. (“The whole time!,” in fact.)
The Kirkpatricks’ score seems bent on making up for its lack of distinct point of view with at least some measure of variety — a bit of rock ‘n’ roll (benign), a couple of beatboxing puppets (impressive) and a lot of genre non-specific songs in the style of contemporary musical theater (inoffensive). If the score has a unifying principle, it’s duly resisting catchiness or memorability.
Rob McClure, who broke out on Broadway 15 years ago stepping into the shoes of another legendary comedian in “Chaplin,” delivers an undeniably charming and virtuosic performance. Showcasing his extreme vocal gymnastics and expert slapstick seems to be the production’s most convincing creative defense. His batty brogue is a facsimile of Williams’ — the musical scrupulously avoids fixing anything that isn’t broken (or breaking any sort of ground at all) — but McClure otherwise owns this resurrection, seizing the part for his own.
There is a curious vacancy, though, to Jenn Gambatese in the role (originated by Sally Field) of the comic fool’s warm but exasperated ex-wife. Indeed, with the notable added exception of Charity Angél Dawson, as the court-ordered child-custody liaison who nearly absconds with the show in a fiery second-act ambush, much of the company seem like resigned figurines on a carousel, unsure of where this is all headed. They raise their voices when they have something to hide (which is often). They smile and hit their marks. They clear the way for their wily and wisecracking matron.
If the production has another star, it’s the meticulously detailed, almost lavish set by David Korins, impeccably lit by Philip S. Rosenberg. The pristine suburban affluence of present-day San Francisco may not lend the domestic story much accessibility or intimacy, but at least it’s pretty to look at. The costumes by Catherine Zuber telegraph a “Scooby Doo” vibe and don’t feel entirely in sync.
Crossdressing in pursuit of love is a centuries-old theatrical device; even Viola, Shakespeare’s noblest heroine, costumed herself like a man to woo one, albeit with significantly more poetry. But the politics of gender performance — particularly on major stages, where gender-diverse representation remains scarce to non-existent — have long favored dudes donning dresses for yuks. “Mrs. Doubtfire” has little if anything to say about what it means to be a man or a woman, which may be a blessing. (A small army of queer stylists whip up the persona as a drag challenge.) But in the context of rapidly evolving conversations about gender diversity, with real stakes for trans and non-binary people, the musical’s central maneuver feels cheap, retrograde and like little more than a gimmick.
There’s a case to be made that people just want to be reminded of childhood, coddled by stories they remember fondly, and held to a sympathetic breast that smells of mothballs and banana cream. Never mind about art — even popular entertainment ought to pack more of a punch than brandy on the gums. Besides, “Mrs. Doubtfire” the movie is streaming on Disney+.