‘Mrs.Doubtfire’: 90’s Property Goes from Protest-able to “Just” Regressive
Last Thursday, when I stood up to applaud the boisterous, giving-all-they-got ensemble of Mrs. Doubtfire, I found myself marveling at the joy I got out of what was so clearly a cash grab. Unlike recent attempts at monetizing well-known properties & cultural touchstones (hello, Diana!). Mrs. Doubtfire is full of exciting, justifiably large musical numbers, and charming comedic performances. It was low-calorie, fluffy entertainment, a two-and-a-half-hour diversion that I didn’t mind experiencing on a weekday night. However, as I sat with the musical a little longer over the weekend, and rewatched the original film, my perception of what the show was doing started to sour.
At face value, Mrs. Doubtfire is a fun family-friendly musical that takes you on a rollercoaster of kooky, comedic moments. The story follows the same plot as the classic film, Daniel Hillard (Rob McClure), post-divorce, dresses up as an elder-esque nanny to spend more time with his children. The added musical numbers move us quickly through a show that apes every iconic moment and line from the original film, and audiences old enough to remember Robin Williams donning the trademark plaster and wig will fill up on the joys of nostalgia.
There are also brilliant, chaotic, and boisterous slapstick moments from McClure (at his best when avoiding doing an impression of Williams), as well as Brad Oscar (playing the role originated on screen by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein), and J.Harrison Ghee, who plays Daniel’s brother Frank and Frank’s partner, Andre. The introduction of the latter two, in particular, really wakes the musical up. Unfortunately, the moment when we meet Andre is also where the mask starts to peel off of Mrs. Doubtfire’s attempts at being, a cool Gen-Z friendly Modern Family-ish musical.
From the get-go, it’s clear the show’s producers are trying to diverge from the foundation laid by a lily-white 90’s film rooted in stereotypical, racist, and transphobic jokes. Unfortunately “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” Trying its best to fill in the cracks and erase the blemishes left by its predecessor, the musical takes away the transphobic remarks (in the original film, Daniel’s kids discover his identity because he is peeing standing up and his frightened son calls him a “he-she”), and shoves in some diversity by rewriting comedic side characters for actors of color.
While on the surface this feels like an improvement, they tokenize the people of color and sprinkle them throughout the story. The two most obvious examples are Andre, who is updated from a non-presence in the original film into a clearly RuPaul-inspired figurine, and the stone-cold court liaison played by Charity Dawson, whose only song is a show-stopping number that paints her as the devil in Daniel’s version of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (and don’t even get me started on the random flamenco dance/performance).
While both of these actors put on rich performances and have banging musical numbers, you can clearly tell through what gaze their characters were created. It’s unclear whether these changes are an attempt to appeal to a more liberal audience, or maybe were done in fear of the “woke police”. Either way, the effort reeks of disingenuousness (and does more harm than good)
From a craft perspective, there’s a lot to like here, and it’s easy to get swept up in the moment and walk out with a huge grin on your face, as well as an appreciation for the staging and performances that went into the show. The creative team is asking you not to think too hard about what you just watched, and accept the paper-thin, surface-level improvements to the original, fairly problematic story. While that approach may work to raise the floor of this production from protest-able to “just” regressive, Mrs. Doubtfire will never actually make good on its attempts at diversity and inclusion until it takes a good hard look at the cracks in the foundation and makes genuine, thoughtful attempts to fix them.
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