Mrs. Doubtfire just opened at Playhouse Square, offering playgoers the chance to see a musical adaptation of the iconic film starring the late, great Robin Williams. As you recall, he played the title role of a man who dresses as a woman to gain access to a place he shouldn't be, his divorced wife's home. (For a closer look at this issue, please see the addendum below.)
The production is funny in fits and starts, featuring a hard-working lead actor, Rob McClure, trying his best to occasionally touch the comedic heights Williams was able to effortlessly scale. But it labors mightily under inevitable comparisons with the film, with McClure ultimately gasping for breath after dealing with many challenges including more than 30 costume/mask/wig changes.
If it seems cruel to compare anyone to Robin Williams, note that this production invites it by mimicking the movie throughout. Right from the start, McClure as Daniel Hilliard tries to show off his talent as a voiceover actor by doing a series of rapid-fire impressions of well-known characters, the kind of thing that Williams did with devastating accuracy. But McClure's impressions are a bit like your uncle Jerry's imitation of Ed Sullivan, not really close and a bit cringey.
The attempted replication of Robin W. extends to the mask that McClure puts on when in dowdy drag as the Scottish nanny, since the fast and sometimes amusing costume changes allow no time to apply and remove makeup. Weirdly, the mask looks like Williams, not McClure, and when in place it gives McClure/William's face the look of having recently received a massive Botox injection, since it doesn't animate in a normal manner.
Almost everything in this show seems a bit tired and shopworn, including the gay duo of Frank Hilliard (Daniel's brother) and his partner Andre, professional costumers whom Daniel calls upon to manufacture his transformation. In those roles, Aaron Kaburick and Nik Alexander are directed to reprise every gay mannerism and trope you've ever seen without a soupcon of wit or a dash of invention.
McClure's yeoman efforts are further hampered by a cumbersome script by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O-Farrell that lacks originality—except for a killer dance number choreographed by Lorin Latarro when Mrs. D. is preparing her first meal for the family, with imaginary Internet chefs flying hither and yon to help her get the food on the table.
Another attempt at originality is the number "Make Me a Woman," in which various female icons are considered as models for Daniel's new image. But despite tons of production value, the number never gains traction within the story itself since Daniel only shows up, almost as an afterthought, at the end. Another good idea—a Fantasia/Sorcerer's Apprentice-like dance featuring a collection of Mrs. Doubtfires with brooms and all—never resolves into anything interesting.
As for the music, the singing is professional in all respects. But the songs by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick are basically of the tick-the-boxes variety, with tunes for all the main characters including Daniel's wife Miranda (an under-used Maggie Lakis), their eldest daughter Lydia (Giselle Gutierrez), and various other characters. For the most part, the songs float in that Broadway musical genre where unmemorable music and lame lyrics live together in richly deserved obscurity.
The veteran, acclaimed director Jerry Zaks adds some clever schtick here and there, but this Mrs. Doubtfire is unable to approach the original, which is honored more in its absence than in what could have been a fresh take on the material. And speaking of the material...
The character Daniel Hilliard was never meant to be a transwoman or a drag artist, but the same crossdressing activities that generate laughs on stage are mirrored, in a nightmarish manner, in our society by the violence currently being visited on trans people of all ages by hate mongers.
Trans people continue to be killed in hate crimes while drag performers and drag story hours are frequently threatened. To top that off, the Ohio House just voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine's recent veto of Ohio House Bill 68, thereby reviving the effort to ban healthcare for transgender people under the age of 18. That followed closely on DeWine's executive order restricting healthcare for transgender adults.
Some considered Mrs. Doubtfire both transphobic and misogynistic on its face when the film first appeared 30 years ago, since it relied on trans, gay and female tropes for its gags. And things have only gotten worse since then, with trans people seemingly declared fit for ridicule and punishment, even to the point of the state denying them appropriate medical care.
Something to think about, and take action on, once the laughter fades.
Through January 28 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000.