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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ is Sure-fire Hilarity at the Hippodrome

Rob McClure as Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire

Right on the heels of a shockingly disappointing loss by the hometown football team, the Ravens, the North America touring production of Mrs. Doubtfire has rolled into Baltimore to bring some needed cheer while we lick our wounds. The musical now playing at the iconic Hippodrome Theatre is a heartwarming, tender story but with high octane comedy that is sure to keep you cracking up.

Four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks adroitly directs this zany, well-staged musical with precision, which is based on the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire that starred Robin Williams. Lorin Latarro deftly handles the lively choreography, and Ethan Popp is the music supervisor.

The central plot consists of a divorced man with no custody of his children because he is unemployed and lives with his brother. He transforms into a female Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire in an effort to be close to his children. How he navigates this ruse is the core of the laugh-a-minute tale.

With some shows the plot is a vessel to carry the music, which is common among jukebox musicals, such as Mamma Mia!, Jagged Little Pill, Rock of Ages and many others. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the music by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick (the Tony Award nominated team behind Something Rotten!) is the vehicle to move the story along, and it’s well done. The book was penned by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

The music in Mrs. Doubtfire will not likely appear on many folks’ playlists; however, the score with its eclectic styles and comedic lyrics perform a key function and service the story pleasingly. Some of the numbers are extraordinary with their lyrics and the manner in how they are performed.

“Easy Peasy” is a standout well-choreographed spectacle that brings laughter and joy with its zany antics. “Welcome to La Rosa” is another where everything in the plot unravels—literally. And that is followed up by the equally funny “He Lied to Me.”

Nik Alexander, Aaron Kaburick, Romelda Teron Benjamin
and Rob McClure

Rob McClure reprises his Tony-nominated Broadway role as Daniel Hillard, the out-of-work impressionist in San Francisco who loses custody of his three children after a messy divorce from his wife Miranda (played superbly by Maggie Lakis who happens to be Mr. McClure’s real wife). As stated previously, Daniel transforms into a Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire, who is hired by Miranda unaware of the true identity. This takes place after Daniel uses his voice impression skills, in a hilarious sequence, to sabotage Miranda’s efforts to find a regular nanny. Mrs. Doubtfire is anything but regular.

No one would expect an actor to replicate the comic genius of the late, great Robin Williams. But Mr. McClure comes darn close. In a tour-de-force, Mr. McClure is exceptional in a  physically demanding and strenuous role that includes well over a dozen costume changes in rapid fashion that must be accomplished on a dime to keep up with the fast pace of the show.

In possessing  natural comedic gifts, Mr. McClure scores big in every scene. Yet, his acting abilities come to the fore when he longs to be with his children and is desperate to do so. His ability to convey tenderness in these scenes while performing slapstick comedy in others is a tribute to his talent. Everybody roots for him.

"... a heartwarming, tender story but with high octane comedy that is sure to keep you cracking up."

Oh, by the way, he can sing well, too, as he is featured in over half the show's numbers. The moving solo “I Want to Be There” where Daniel fights for custody of his children in front of a judge is beautifully delivered. In another style, the comedic “Make Me a Woman” with his brother and his brother’s husband is beyond hilarious. Mr. McClure also excels while in the Mrs. Doubtfire character in the insanely funny “Easy Peasy”—a group number with the talented Ensemble where he desperately tries to brandish his cooking skills. There are many others. And yes, he can dance real well, even tap. What can’t he do?

For her part, Maggie Lakis as the strong-willed and business-savvy mother Miranda Hillard, performs well. Miranda clearly has no more interest in reconciling with Daniel and tries everything to keep him away from the children only to be infiltrated by Mrs. Doubtfire whom she adores especially because of the influence she has on her kids. Her one solo “Let Go” that showcases a powerful alto voice is glorious. In the end, after the jolting discovery that Mrs. Doubtfire was actually her husband, she comes to the realization that things are better when Daniel is around the children. It leads to an emotional conclusion. 

Giselle Gutierrez as Lydia Hillard, the oldest daughter and on the cusp of young adulthood, and for the reviewed performance Cody Braverman as her brother Christopher and Emerson Mae Chan as the youngest sister Natalie are bona fide scene stealers. Their acting skills are spot-on though Christopher performs most of the comedic lines and does so with aplomb. He alternates with Bernard Rimmele while Emerson alternates with Kennedy Pitney.

The three kids perform in the hilarious number “What the Hell”—yes they do, and Ms. Gutierrez shines in the emotional duet near show’s end with Mr. McClure in “Just Pretend.”

Now recall that the movie was released in 1993 and this musical production had made adjustments to modernize. The use of smart phones, internet and Siri are among the technical updates to the show’s plot.

What’s not updated is that the creative team retained the stereotypical gay characters for the musical. Indeed, sensibilities and attitudes have changed regarding LGBTQ+ individuals over the years.  One of the characters is Daniel’s flamboyant brother Frank (played by Aaron Kaburick) who is a make-up artist, no less and his even more flamboyant husband Andre (played by Nik Alexander).

Though their antics are over-the-top and at times cringe-worthy, they are fabulous and provide many comical moments during the course of the show. Advice: Don’t ever say anything negative about Donna Summer in front of Andre!

The couple assists Daniel with the prosthetics and wardrobe needed to pull off the Mrs. Doubtfire persona. And musically, the trio is outstanding in the funny “Make Me a Woman.”

Leo Roberts and Rob McClure
Also performing splendidly is Romelda Teron Benjamin as Wanda Sellner, the stern, all-business court liaison overseeing the progress made by Daniel to get a job, earn enough money and provide suitable housing for the children in advance of the court’s review of the custody ruling. In this process, the exchanges between her and Daniel, Frank and Andre are side-splitting funny. She also displays a powerful soprano. In the end, Daniel does find a job using his impression skills to land a TV kids show gig and manages to find a nice abode.

Leo Roberts plays Stuart Dunmore, Miranda’s brand-new love interest almost immediately following the divorce. Good-looking and muscular, Mr. Roberts portrays the rich British character well as he is the chief rival to Daniel. Whether by design or not, there is no chemistry between him and the children. Mr. Roberts also has a solid tenor singing voice.

The remainder of the talented cast and Ensemble supports the leads exceptionally particularly in vocals and dancing.

Though the set is not intricate or highly technical, it is attractive and services the plot effectively. Scenic Designer David Korins makes use of dropdown curtains and screens for scene changes with images of San Francisco in the background.  Costume Designer Catherine Zuber is very creative in outfitting the cast in colorful garb and, of course, the costumes for Mrs. Doubtfire. Phillip S. Rosenberg’s brilliant lighting design adds to the visual excellence of the show.

Truthfully, going in, I had my doubts about Mrs. Doubtfire and its conversion from screen to stage as a musical. No more doubts. It’s a perfect blend of love and laughs, and it’s fantastic.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Mrs. Doubtfire runs through February 4 the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome Theatre online.

Photos: Joan Marcus

The 2024-2025 season recently announced:

Friday, January 26, 2024

5-6-7-8 'A Chorus Line' at Toby’s Will Surely Captivate

It may have been 1975 with the birth years of the dancers auditioning for a fictional Broadway musical ranging from 1942 to 1955, but the competition for such chosen roles by these show dancers is as fierce today as it was then.  An abundance of talented performers; needed jobs; few openings are available. That hasn’t changed over the years. 

Toby’s Dinner Theatre triumphs with its entertaining re-creation of the classic hit musical A Chorus Line, which humanizes these seemingly anonymous dancers. Each brings a story of struggle or dreams, of triumphs or failures, of family support or abandonment.

I was curious to see how Toby’s in-the-round configuration could adapt to a linear production, such as this. Under the imaginative direction of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, who has been nominated for two more such awards for his work last year with Something Rotten! and Escape to Margaritaville along with choreographer Vincent Musgrave making his Toby’s choreography debut, the production team met the daunting challenge.

Rather than stringing the auditioning dancers in a single line across the stage as depicted in other productions, the performers are clustered at the stage’s three entrances as well as forming double lines across the stage. It’s very effective.

A Chorus Line features music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, a book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante and originally choreographed by Michael Bennett.  In doing so, Mr. Minnick helms a tight production on a mostly bare stage that boasts a diverse array of talented dancers, singers and actors that perform some of the best-known songs on Broadway.

Paul played by Brian Dauglash

Songs, such as “I Hope I Get It;” “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” a brilliantly staged production number; “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three;” the gorgeous ballad “What I Did for Love;” and “One,” a singular sensation of a song, highlight the catalog. Honestly, you will have a hard time getting that song out of your head.

The eight-piece orchestra under the musical direction of conductor Ross Scott Rawlings (Nathan Scavilla conducts in other performances) provides sturdy melodic support for the singers and dancers. Lynn Joslin’s superb lighting design vividly amplifies the dramatic sequences with Mark Smedley’s sound design enabling the musical performances and dialogue to be clearly audible.

The original version of A Chorus Line ran for 6,137 performances and is the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever.  It spawned numerous touring productions and revivals, captured 12 Tony Award nominations and won 9 of them, in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

The musical is dance-heavy, and chorographer Musgrave and the performers are clearly up to the task. A variety of precisely arranged moves are deployed making excellent use of the stage. They include lifts and tap dancing among others, which are on display in solo and group numbers.

The quality of the music, dancing and dialogue (largely monologue) makes the show endearing and timeless and explains its enormous popularity.  Each of the 17 dancers is called upon to not only flaunt their moves individually and in groups in a strenuous audition but are also asked (um, told) to describe their life’s experiences to the authoritative director and choreographer, Zach (played commandingly by Jeffrey Shankle).

Mr. Shankle mostly sits above one of the theater’s balconies to simulate being in the rear of a theater’s auditorium. Zach’s assistant Larry, played well by Andrew Gordon, is a standout dancer when he joins in group numbers.

Never for once imagining they would be required to reveal their inner secrets, confessions and self-doubts to the director, much less to their fellow competitors, to vie for the limited number of openings (4 boys and 4 girls), the dancers opened their souls with remarkable candor.  I mean, how many performers attend an audition and admit they can’t sing?  One did here.

"Toby’s Dinner Theatre triumphs with its entertaining re-creation of the classic hit musical A Chorus Line..."

Talking straight ahead to Zach and responding to his questions bellowed from a microphone, these dancers tell their stories amidst a series of musical numbers including a montage.  Though some of the soliloquies slow the pace down in spots, they are mostly fun and unique and an integral part of the show. 

There are too many to name here, but these are some examples. Don, the married man who worked in a strip club (Brandon Bedore); Connie (Kiana King), a petite older Asian-American who still believes in eternal youth; Greg (Ariel Messeca), an impish Jewish gay man who describes his first experience with a woman; Sheila (Jessica Barraclough), a sassy, aging and sexy dancer who describes her unhappy childhood; and Mark (Angelo Harrington II), the youngest at age 20 who hilariously told his priest he thought he had gonorrhea when instead it was...

Paul (Brian Dauglash) presented one of the more emotional stories.  The Puerto Rican tells of his earlier experiences growing up gay and his involvement in a drag act. He was forced to drop out of school, and when his parents learned of his orientation, his relating their reaction was a particularly poignant part of the show.  Paul breaks down and Zach goes on stage to comfort him.  Mr. Daughlash is exceptional in sharing Paul’s experience.

Then there is Diana (Leela Dawson), also Puerto Rican who delivers the knockout number “Nothing” and later the classic “What I Did for Love.”  The latter follows a mishap to Paul, who injured a knee during a tap dance number, and the other dancers on the line experienced the sudden horror that their career could also end in a flash.  Few had alternative plans. 

Cassie played by Lydia Gifford

Cassie, one of the significant characters in the production, is played convincingly by Lydia Gifford.  She and director Zach once had a romantic relationship, and when Zach became more involved with theatre than with her, they split.  Zach believes that Cassie, who was once a successful solo dancer, is a feature-caliber performer, not merely a member of the chorus. But Cassie wants to be a part of the chorus and respects all those trying to make it.  

Ms. Gifford also elegantly performs a solo dance (“The Music and the Mirror”) as an angled mirror presents images of her dancing smoothly around the stage in a variety of moves donned in a sleek red dress.

Val, a fun character played by Alexis Krey Bedore, does a splendid job as a potty-mouthed dancer who needed plastic surgery to “enhance” her looks to get dancing jobs.  Her rendition of “Dance: 10; Looks: Three” is performed admirably.

The ensemble, in the meantime, learn the steps and lyrics to “One,” arguably the most iconic of the show’s numbers.  The final eight chosen dancers are announced, and those failing to make the cut exit the stage deflated. 

For the show’s finale all the dancers, including those cut, are decked out in glistening gold formal costumes (designed by Kansas City Costumes and coordinated by Janine Sunday) blending as a singular mass, absent individual identity, wonderfully performing the catchy reprise of “One.”   

Rounding out the talented cast are in alphabetical order: Dereck Atwater (Frank), Quadry Brown (Richie), Justin Calhoun (Butch), Aria Renee Curameng (Vicki), Emily Flack (Maggie), Nicky Kaider (Mike), Amanda Kaplan Landstrom (Kristine), Ryan Sellers (Al), Adam Shank (Roy), David Singletoen (Bobby), Patricia “Pep” Targete (Bebe), Danielle Tuomey (Trish), and Julia Williams (Judy).

Toby's production of A Chorus Line features a very diverse, attractive and talented bunch of dancers, singers and actors. They powerfully and gracefully glide and swerve in precise movements and none deserve to be cut.  But in the end, somebody has to go.  

Through this show, which was inspired by a number of stories from actual dancers, we’re taken back almost five decades. Indeed, some of the topics, such as homosexuality and breast implants were groundbreaking back in the day.  But truth be told, aside from the costumes, hairstyles, and cultural references of yore, it is all so contemporary and a must-see.

Advisory: The show contains adult themes and language and is not recommended for young children.

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

A Chorus Line runs through March 10, 2024, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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