Greater than his wit, greater even than his energy, Robin Williams had a spectacular elasticity. Yes, voice and character, but also emotion. He could stretch, in a moment, from manic clowning to warm pathos—then fleck that warmth with pain or the clowning with a desperation. Like many of his movies, 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire relied on that charismatic range to yield something truer than a typically hairbrained Hollywood plot might.
I wondered—stepping into 5th Avenue Theatre on Friday night to see the world premiere of its Mrs. Doubtfire musical, which heads to Broadway next year—who could match Williams in that role. In the production’s very satisfying first half, in fact, lead Rob McClure (who got a Tony nomination for his work in Chaplin: The Musical) makes the question irrelevant. McClure can do the voices (here updated, kind of, to Gollum and Borat) and the yuck-it-up schtick that define Daniel Hillard—the recently divorced dad who impersonates an elderly Scottish woman and gets hired by his ex-wife to nanny his kids. If he’s not quite as emotionally engaged as Williams in the role, it doesn’t much matter. He makes it his own.
The production takes off at breakneck pace and whirls glossily along: The songs arrive fast and catchy, particularly a number where a YouTube video’s cast comes to life as a pirouetting kitchen brigade around Hillard as he tries to cook dinner (it still involves a singed bra). The sets click into place like a good Lego set. And the rest of the cast keeps everything humming. It stumbles sometimes—especially a gag in which a kid’s show host doesn’t know what rap is, which feels nonsensically dated, and isn’t helped when Daniel later starts rapping, which (of course!) shows that he could be a hip kid’s show star. But mostly, here is a shiny Seattle show, built on broad comedy and big numbers.
Post-intermission, though, Mrs. Doubtfire loses some momentum. That’s partly due to an excessive runtime at 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission. But mostly it’s that the story’s emotional beats don’t land. McClure and company can’t keep the production’s sad and sweet numbers at the end from feeling overdetermined. The original is sentimental. This one hurtles right into maudlin, and in the end, for all its production values and cast exertions, you’re left with something that’s live, but not quite living.
Thru Jan 4, 5th Ave Theatre, $39–$179