Review: Broadway in Chicago Brings Well-Crafted, Hilarious Fun in Mrs. Doubtfire

Once in a while, a theater production comes along that does better on tour than it does on Broadway. Mrs. Doubtfire, by the songwriting team of Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (Something Rotten!) and a book co-written written by Karey and John O’Farrell, is one of these outliers. The 2020 musical received a tepid critical response on Broadway, as well as little attention from Tony Award voters.

However, Mrs. Doubtfire has a mainstream appeal and a built-in audience, as many folks around the country still have fond memories of the 1993 hit film starring the late Robin Williams. What’s more, the musical captures most of the charm of the original, when a father named Daniel tries to find a way into the lives of his kids during a messy divorce. Daniel (played brilliantly by Rob McClure) says that he’ll do anything to get back into their lives on a daily basis.

In the process, he convincingly creates the character of an older Scottish nanny (Mrs. Doubtfire) to achieve that goal.
The 2020 musical is filled with forgettable songs, and a few less of them wouldn’t hurt the show. But the creators, among them Broadway director Jerry Zaks, have a sharp eye for comedy. Physical schtick combines with verbal one-liners to create almost a non-stop atmosphere of entertainment for folks of all ages. It’s a family-friendly musical with a subtle message: Families come in all shapes and sizes. Get used to it.

Meeting the new nanny. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Of course, the three kids in Daniel’s family initially are torn by the absence of their father, despite the fact that he behaves in an embarrassing fashion that is even too immature for 15-year-old Lydia (Giselle Gutierrez). Like her mother, Miranda (Maggie Lakis), Lydia feels the urge to take a more “responsible” role in Daniel’s presence. Rather than having a stable father figure to look up to, Lydia is faced with someone who, mentally, couldn’t even be considered a peer. For instance: Lydia has to pay the pizza guy in cash at her father’s apartment because his credit card won’t work. (Actually, it would have been more contemporary if she had just Venmo-ed the payment to the pizza guy’s phone.)

The other kids suffer in various ways, too. Son Christopher (played alternately by Cody Braverman and Alex Bernard Rimmele) is really too young to take on the role of “man of the house” in his father’s absence, but he tries to be brave around his sisters. Little Natalie (played alternately by Emmerson Mae Chan and Kennedy Pitney) doesn’t really understand much about the break-up, except that it hurts.

As a parent, it is disturbing to see Daniel force the two older kids to keep a secret from the younger one when they discover the nanny’s true identity. While understandable, it indicates just how messed up Daniel’s nanny plan really is.
And the one who is hurt the worst by Daniel’s deception is former wife Miranda. Her character gets a bit more attention in the musical than in the film (she even has her own song, “Let Go,” in Act II). She voices her discomfort at having to fill the role of both parents while Daniel gets to play the mischievous clown. She says it isn’t fair and, indeed, it's true. She then announces that she isn’t going to take it any more, and the divorce proceeds.

Real-life husband and wife team Maggie Lakis and Rob McClure as a divorcing couple in "Mrs. Doubtfire."
Real-life husband and wife team Maggie Lakis and Rob McClure play the divorcing couple. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Perhaps a bit too soon, Miranda even has her eye on a sexy, single business partner (Leo Roberts). He pursues Miranda vigorously. Alone with Mrs. Doubtfire, he wants “her” to “spill the beans” about Miranda’s taste in men. Of course, this leads to all sorts of hilarity as Daniel (as Doubtfire) tries to convince him that Miranda is nowhere near ready to think about a new romance.

Also key to this cast is Daniel’s gay brother, Frank (Aaron Kaburick), and his husband, Andre (Nik Alexander). In a very funny bit, the two hairdressers/wigmakers attempt to find the “right” image for Daniel’s nanny character. At first, they are thinking Princess Di, Grace Kelly and Cher until Daniel gets them to think older and stodgier. Then they “see” visions of Margaret Thatcher, etc. (all these “visions” actually appear as the ensemble dons the necessary costumes, wigs and make-up). Finally, they come up with a homey-looking prosthesis, silver-coiffed hair and outfit featuring a plaid skirt to fit the nanny’s voice (which Miranda has only heard over the phone).

Another gut-busting production number occurs when Daniel (as Doubtfire) attempts to make a healthy, nutritious supper. It’s clear he hasn’t been cooking at home during his tenure as Daniel, and now his efforts go up in smoke. Simultaneously, a cadre of white-coated chefs appear to do a terrific tap dance number.

The ensemble fills multiple roles in Mrs. Doubtfire, including a staff of tap-dancing chefs. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Daniel tries so hard to stay close to his kids after the divorce in Mrs. Doubtfire that it begs the question: Couldn’t he have tried a bit harder when he was married all those years? Apparently not. Anyway, there are plenty of goofy mix-ups in store as Daniel jumps in and out of his female alter-ego.

Perhaps when inhabiting his “nanny” persona, Daniel finally learns what Miranda has been trying to tell him all along: the kids do much better with more consistency, discipline and boundaries in the house.

The whole show is centered around Rob McClure, and he more than lives up to the task. While he may lack the charisma of Robin Williams (who wouldn’t?), he is an excellent comic as well as a dramatic actor. It’s no wonder that he earned a Tony Award nomination as Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for this role.

McClure also has a strong family connection with his co-star, Maggie Lakis. They are real-life husband and wife. One hopes that their own home has none of the onstage drama that their characters must face on a nightly basis. In any case, their antics, as well as those of a strong supporting cast, guarantee that audiences can sit back and chuckle throughout the delightful Mrs. Doubtfire.

Mrs. Doubtfire plays through March 10 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W. Randolph St). Tickets are available at www.broadwayinchicago.com. The show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.