NEW YORK — One sure sign that Broadway is bouncing back is the arrival of new shows based on hit movies. The latest is “Mrs. Doubtfire” — a sweetly clumsy valentine to broken families from the mid-1990s that arrives in the fraught 2020s.
What opened Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre is the musical equivalent of a softball down the middle: a safe, respectfully updated adaptation of a familiar plot with a great leading man, a few moments of lunacy and pro forma songs that disappear from memory like one of the many quick changes.
The supremely talented Rob McClure steps into the title role that the late Robin Williams made iconic on film, playing an actor who poses as his children’s portly Scottish nanny in order to spend time with them after losing custody in a divorce. “Yeah,” one of his kids announces, “this won’t put me in therapy.”
McClure has long deserved a role that shows what he can do and this is it: impressions — Darth Vader, Donald Trump and Yoda, among them — and a remarkable agility to dance in a fat suit, sing tenderly in a duet, breakdance, catch multiple airborne butter sticks in a pot, and showcase an almost Ed Sheeran ability create overlapping vocal loops while manipulating two puppets.
The writers — storywriters Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, with songs by Kirkpatrick and his brother, Wayne — are the same behind the original 2015 musical “Something Rotten!” but this time they’ve had to color within the lines of an established plot and are obligated to hit all the memorable bits from the movie — the “run-by fruiting,” the burned blouse, the cry of “Poppets!”
“Mrs. Doubtful” is actually best when it goes on non-film flights of inspired nuttiness, like when a harried Doubtfire asks the computer assistant Siri for help cooking dinner and a full dance sequence breaks out, or when the stress of the subterfuge prompts a surreal number with 12 Doubtfires on stage at once.
The writers have shaved off some of the more uncomfortable moments in the film — especially Doubtfire fending off the advances of a smitten male colleague — and given songs to what seems like literally everyone, including the kids, estranged wife, the new boyfriend, the social worker, the best friends and a trio of Spanish restaurant singers.
Other than McClure, another standout performance is by Analise Scarpaci, who plays his oldest daughter with heart and stuns with her voice. “Something Rotten!” veterans Brad Oscar and Peter Bartlett also add comedic flair but never get out of second gear. The lyrics are a little too twee, with “British” rhymed with “Brad Pitt-ish.”
One big thing that needs addressing as it lurches to its sugary finale is the fact that there’s a guy in a dress — again. “Mrs. Doubtfire” comes on the high heels of another guy-in-drag comedy adaptation of “Tootsie,” which closed just before the pandemic and took heat from some quarters for being transphobic.
Both stories involve cisgender men donning dresses and becoming better versions of themselves by hiding in plain sight as women. “I have been seeing things from a different perspective,” our hero says to his ex.
With “Mrs. Doubtfire,” McClure’s character, who has swiped the fear of erasure from so many, is more like a spy, hoping to connect with his kids. He doesn’t cause much harm, but it’s still deception in drag and the dialogue engages in gender in only the most superficial ways, never saying anything about queer identity or marginalization. It’s denuded, too scared to seize the opportunity.
There are worrying signs the makers of “Mrs. Doubtfire” haven’t really learned to see things from a different perspective. They think audiences will find a guy in a frumpy dress as surprising and funny as it apparently was when the “X-Files” first aired. And the song “Make Me a Woman,” sung by a stereotypical, over-the-top gay couple, makes an appalling differentiation between hot women — Cher, Lady Diana, Jackie Onassis and Grace Kelly — and non-hot ones — Margaret Thatcher, Janet Reno, Julia Child and Eleanor Roosevelt.
We have hopefully moved on from that. Even the title of the show sounds anachronistic: In a world where the performers in the Playbill announce their preferred pronouns, “Mrs.” is the first word in the new musical’s title, an immediate sign it belongs to a different time. “Is it too late for me to change?” sings the lead character. Yes, sir, it is. Now please take off that dress.