Review by Daz Gale
All things considered, 2023 is proving to be a relatively quiet year when it comes to big Broadway shows opening in the West End. One exception is Mrs Doubtfire who has crossed the pond to say a big fat helloooooooo to UK audiences at the suitably larger-than-life Shaftesbury Theatre. Would the stage adaptation ever be able to do justice to a story so many grew up with and love?
Based on the classic movie from 1993, the stage adaptation of Mrs Doubtfire made its Broadway debut in 2020 though its run was repeatedly interrupted and ultimately it proved fairly short-lived. The musical first hit the UK last year for a pre-West End run in Manchester and, after a lengthy run of previews, is now finally open. It tells the story of Daniel Hillard who, after getting divorced, struggles without seeing his children as much so takes on the persona of Mrs Doubtfire in a bid to spend time with them. What ensues is a mix of comedy with no shortage of heart.
Before I get into the review, I want to address something regarding this show. Following the news that Mrs Doubtfire was to open in the West End, there were concerns about certain elements of the show that could prove damaging to the trans community. I may not be the best person to dictate whether or not it is damaging as I haven’t lived these experiences. From what I could see, some of the elements from the movie that would leave a bad taste in your mouth now are thankfully not present. While I have heard people mention there were some problematic elements when the show opened on Broadway, I can’t say how it has changed for certain but from my own limited standpoint, I didn’t see anything I felt was damaging (though I welcome the possibility that my own naivety may be a factor here). My take on this show is it doesn’t set out to poke fun or belittle anyone in particular – it is showing the plight of a desperate man who would do anything to see his children. There is a beautifully inclusive speech at the shows climax as well which feels progressive. However, I am well aware this may be perceived differently by those who have lived experiences affected by this, and encourage everybody to seek out the voices of those affected to hear their balanced thoughts on the subject matter.
On to the review… this musical adaptation of Mrs Doubtfire was written by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell with music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. It takes the basic premise of the story from the movie and fabulously translates it for the stage, keeping all the crucial elements while updating it in more ways than one. Set in a more modern time than the movie with new technology prevalent throughout and certain tweaks to the story to allow it to work on stage and to an extent stand alone as its entity rather than be a carbon copy of the movie. The classic line “Help is on the way, dear” is used in a completely different situation with other new scenes fleshing out the story further.
When it comes to the writing, it treads the careful balance of being laugh out loud funny while carrying a great sense of poignance with it as it brings to light the shows more serious themes or family, fatherhood and the lengths one person will go to to see their children. The story can be overwhelmingly emotional at times, but the way these contrasting elements are blended together effortlessly is a testament to the writing with moments in the show making you laugh and cry simultaneously.
Jerry Zaks’ direction is constantly inventive bringing big Broadway numbers and moments which almost feel farcical to a show which is always visually stimulating. Pulling off the necessary quick changes can’t be the easiest thing to direct but it is pulled off in various ways – the majority of which are impressively done on the stage. While Doubtfire’s mask may look like something out of Bo Selecta, it is admirable how they managed to get such an effortless transformation in no time at all.
It’s the big ensemble numbers where the stage really comes to life with Lorin Latarro’s choreography providing some glorious entertainment to play out on David Korins’ meticulously detailed and incredibly satisfying set design. Fabulous costumes from Catherine Zuber and a great (if not slightly too bright at times) lighting design from Philip S. Rosenberg ensures Mrs Doubtfire is a constant joy to watch.
Undoubtedly the best thing about Mrs Doubtfire is Mrs Doubtfire – the alter ego of Daniel Hillard. Stepping into the impossibly big shoes of Robin Williams is as unenviable a task as any but not only does Gabriel Vick provide a fitting legacy to such an iconic role, he also remarkably manages to make it his own. Gabriel is a truly phenomenal performer, gifted in every respect. His comedic timing and ability to make even the most scripted of moments feel completely spontaneous speaks for his talents as an actor. He has the audience in the palm of his hands right from the ingenious pre-show message that sees him deliver some uncanny impressions. Gabriel is clearly having a lot of fun in the role and relishing every moment with a mix of slapstick and farce. Crucially, however, he never plays down the heart of the story and channels the emotional core of the story really showcasing the vulnerability and desperation in Daniel to see his children. It would also be remiss of me not to mention his impressive quick-change abilities. Ultimately, while there are other aspects that make Mrs Doubtfire a fantastic watch, it is the performance of Gabriel Vick that makes it a must-see. If he doesn’t get award nominations for this star turn, I’ll stick my face in a cake.
While Gabriel Vick easily steals the show, this is not a one performer production – he is joined by some truly exquisite co-stars, many of whom shine on stage. Laura Tebbutt gives a consistently strong performance as Miranda Hillard, expertly navigating the narrative as her character goes on quite a large journey in a small space of time. A wonderful actress, her talents show no shortage with a truly gorgeous singing voice bringing the house down on her big solo musical number ‘Let Go’. Carla Dixon-Hernandez is another revelation as older daughter Lydia. The two younger siblings are played by a rotating cast of children. On the night I went, I was blown away by Frankie Treadaway as Christopher and Angelica—Pearl Scott as Natalie, both holding their own against the adult performers and shining in their own right.
Cameron Blakely is a comic highlight as Frank with his habit of shouting when he is lying used to brilliant effect. While the notion is funny in itself, it is the way Cameron leapt into the madness of it and made sure the same trick was never boring that truly elevated it to become one of the best character performances on that stage. Samuel Edwards delights with his turn as Stuart Dunmire, while Kelly Agbowu has several scene-stealing moments as Wanda Sellner, as does Micha Richardson as Janet Lundy. Special mention has to go out to the hard-working ensemble who take on a real variety of roles, becoming Doubtfire clones and puppeteers as well as every other character you can think of in this weird and wacky world.
The music in Mrs Doubtfire is pleasant enough albeit not the most memorable of scores. There are a smattering of fantastic songs in there including the aforementioned ‘Let Go’ and the perplexingly different ‘He Lied To Me’ (fabulously performed by Lisa Mathieson). The three children get an earworm number in ‘What The Hell’ which manages to be family-friendly while teasing profanity. A musical highlight comes in the form of a loop pedal in the stunning sequence ‘It’s About Time’. Not all musical numbers have the same effect – ‘Big Fat No’ is memorable for the wrong reasons, being quite an annoying number and feeling not quite good enough to be in the show, while ‘Make Me A Woman’ feels like an attempt to elicit cheap laughs which, if anything, only goes to do the show a disservice. Mrs Doubtfire may be a musical but the music is the weakest aspect to the show, and made me wonder if this might have been more impactful as a play?
If the West End has been crying out for a big new musical that is guaranteed to make you smile (and weep), help is most certainly on the way with Mrs Doubtfire. Completely joyous to watch and beautiful at its heart, this is a show with an important message that is carried off beautifully. While the music may not be as strong as the book, the one aspect that makes this production a triumph is the lead performance by Gabriel Vick – completely outstanding and one everybody needs to see to believe. I’m left with absolutely no doubt that Mrs Doubtfire Is going to be a hit.
Mrs Doubtfire plays at Shaftesbury Theatre. Tickets from https://www.mrsdoubtfiremusical.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan