We had the privilege to see three fantastic shows during our New Year’s trip to Manhattan, and I realized after the fact that all three were adaptations of well-known if not beloved source material. The first show, a musical comedy adapted from a 1995 comedic film featuring Robin Williams and an absurd premise; the second, a gender-swapped modernization of one of Sondheim’s most famous and adored musicals; and the third, an important, thought-provoking (and at times, dare-I-say, edgy) play adapted from a Great American Novel that we all studied in high school.
In all three cases, I think the adaptation improved upon the original, lifting up its source material reverentially and shining it in a new light. All three stories are 20th century works, pre-9/11 that had to be updated for the Zennial and Zoomer crowds.
Mrs. Doubtfire: Jokes that flew in the 90s don’t always play well today; hell, the premise is kinda sketchy (a narcissist dresses up as a woman to deceive his ex-wife? that has non-PC horror movie written all over it).
Company: In a show that explores marriage, single life, loneliness, and aging, flipping the gender of the main character updates the content for modern audiences, because it’s more likely that a 35-year-old woman would be pressured by her friends to settle down than a man of that age.
To Kill a Mockingbird: The lens which we examine racial issues through is much sharper these days than when the original book came out; how would the trial of an innocent Black man accused of raping a white woman in the deeply racist 1940s South play to 21st century audiences after Trayvon and George and Breonna?
Below are my reviews of the three shows!
The musical takes a premise of a dated movie that is cringey when you think of it outside of Movie Land (an ex-husband deceives his entire family in an elaborate cat-fishing scheme that, despite his pure-hearted intentions, blows up in his face) and attempts to update it for modern audiences as a big splashy musical. While the production itself is well-executed, the script still struggles to justify its protagonist and get away with cross-dressing jokes that don’t come off as transphobic.
The writers tried to acknowledge many times that what Daniel tries to get away with is shady AF, but everyone who warns him against his foolhardy plans loves him too much to really put a stop to it. So you have to suspend your disbelief and accept what this man does out of love for his children. The script gives the kids more to say than the movie, and also improves upon Miranda’s character by making it clear — to everyone including Daniel — that she’s not the bad guy here. There were a few spots that I wanted them to do MORE for her, like in the scene where the social worker basically says “yeah what he did was crazy but I usually work with drug addicts, alcoholics, and abusers sooooooo what he did wasn’t THAT bad.” A few more lines could have further addressed the Crazy of Daniel, recognizing that what he did was still terrible, but maybe that would have been Too Serious for a musical comedy.
Though, that is I think the biggest flaw with this show: they really wanted to make it a musical COMEDY but the premise is NOT FUNNY. The premise is sad. The premise could easily be turned into a psychological thriller. This broken, emotionally immature man goes to insane (and kind of humiliating) lengths to deceive MANY people, defying court orders. Were this a news headline, no one would be laughing. This would be considered fraud.
So I think if they had leaned into more of a dramedy tone (since the 2nd act is not nearly as haha funny anyway) then the show could be more successful than it is. As it stands, the songs are forgettable (I literally can not remember one single tune), some of the pacing is plodding, and while the script makes many improvements, it wouldnt have had to work so hard if the story could have been treated more realistically.
Overall, though, the story adaptation and modernization was solid. The plot follows all of the same beats but the details are different: Daniel still throws a party in the opening scene but instead of a petting zoo, it’s a teenage rager and he accidentally invited a stripper instead of a singing telegram; the head of the TV studio is a grumpy, seemingly humorless woman instead of a man; the boring TV show that Daniel wants to improve is more of a Mr. Rogers crossed with Sesame Street and when he does his little improvised riff that the TV studio producer witnesses, it’s a rap about telling time that is a lesson in perfect timing as Daniel ‘improvises’ with a looping machine; and the big climactic reveal happens at a Spanish restaurant (but it’s still on Miranda’s birthday). So for fans of the movie, it felt familiar and maintained the spirit of the original, while making the scenes work better on stage.
There were many good things about this show! They found as many opportunities as possible for diverse casting outside of the main family. The eldest child actor had a GREAT voice and stage presence, displaying an impressive range of emotion towards her father. The brother character and his husband, makeup and costume professionals, are total scene stealers with their dialogue and physical comedy; they are also the two characters who give Daniel the most pushback on every crazy idea. Once the first act really got going (basically from the conception of his Scottish nanny character), it was often laugh out loud funny. We laughed A LOT. And even in the more dramatic second act, the less frequent funny bits were very funny.
The absolute BEST part of the show, though, was the lead actor. The way the role was written allowed him to pay homage to Robin Williams without falling into mimicry. Rob McClure, who I had the pleasure of seeing in Something Rotten! when it came to Nashville, was non-stop astounding. I bow down to his talent and limitless energy. He’s in EVERY SCENE and must be so sweaty by the end of it. His impressions are excellent, his timing perfect, he never slows down or shows that he’s tiring in a very physically demanding role. I could watch that man read through a phone book, he commands the stage! Without his talent, though, I don’t know that the production would have been as good.
This show faced an uphill battle from the moment someone said “Let’s adapt Mrs. Doubtfire for the stage.” Written by the team behind Something Rotten, it doesn’t have half of the brilliance or wit of its predecessor but it is entertaining. When my dad and I were talking about how much we had laughed and enjoyed the show, I compared it to eating fast food: I love me some McDonald’s chicken nuggets but I know they’re not good food. In the moment, it can be so so so good, when the fries are fresh and you’re so hungry anything will do. But you know you’ll have a hearty, more filling meal later on and the McNuggets will be a fleeting memory.
So A+ performance for the lead, a C for the overall script and songs, a B+ for the production (kind of lazy in some of the costuming). We had a GREAT time at the theatre and it was definitely a high jumping off point for the rest of our trip, but compared to the caliber of other shows, this is not going to stand the test of time or demand repeat viewing.
I’ve never seen a production of Company. I know, I know! A travesty! But I know enough about the original to realize the brilliance behind this gender swapped revival. It’s the non-linear story of Bobby, who’s turning 35 and the only singleton in his group of friends, who are all coupled up for better or for worse, and boy does everyone have a lot of strong feelings about relationships and what Bobby should do with his “middle aged” life. (Is 35 really middle age? I always thought it was like 45-60).
When the show came out in the 70s, it made sense that the male main character was waffling between the freedoms of his single life and what he was missing from married life, but today, it would play so differently: who cares if a 35 year old man is single? People get bent out of shape about WOMEN in their mid-30s who still haven’t settled down, so by gender flipping the main character breathes fresh, modern life into the story. Of course she’s having a panic attack on her birthday and spiraling through a cacophony of voices; society, friends, her own brain are all pressuring her to figure shit out and be a modern woman who has it all. (Is that even possible?)
While not a traditional ‘adaptation’, so much work was done in terms of the production, choreography, switching which characters say which lines, and updating other lyrics that this version feels like a reboot, something familiar but new lovingly created in the image of its source material.
While the show’s sets, costumes and props all convey the modern era, with some choreography subtly evoking the cacophony of social media, the simple act of turning Bobby into Bobbie modernizes the content more than any visual aid could. Would I buy a 35-year-old man waffling between a desire for freedom and a deep longing for love? Yes, absolutely. But through Bobbie, the lyrics take on a new edge: 35 is pushing the edge of how long society is comfortable with a single woman doing her thing. 35 is nearing the age of ‘geriatric’ pregnancy, of when bearing children could be more challenging. Bobbie’s biological clock is ticking much more quickly than Bobby’s, and it’s that urgency that lays the foundation for Bobbie’s mental spiral on the night of her 35th birthday.
The gender flipping updates the script in a number of ways, without having to make giant changes to the original script or lyrics (though there are several small lyrical updates, removing problematic language or terms we don’t use today). Besides the lead going from Bobby to Bobbie, the lead’s love interests are now men (“Drive a Person Crazy” rings true in a the Tinder Era when it’s sung by three men), one of the four couples in Bobbie’s life is gay (absolutely my favorite rendition of “Not Getting Married Today”, which takes on a new meaning when sung by someone who, until recently, *couldnt* married), and one of the couples’ dialogue was gender flipped, making the dad the stay-at-home parent and the career-driven partner the woman.
Changes also had to be made to the relationship between Bobbie and Joanne as well (from what I’ve read, Joanne propositions Bobby in the original, but she proposes an interesting alternative in this version). Bobbie/Joanne’s relationship is a wholly separate thing from the male-female friendship in the original; Bobbie must see in Joanne the woman she could become rather than the type of relationship she’s missing out on.
The staging, lighting, and choreography all contributed to the nonlinear anxiety attack that Bobbie experiences, all on the eve of her 35th birthday. I loved how the director incorporated elements of Alice in Wonderland to the visuals, from too-small doorways and too-big balloons to interconnecting box sets that Bobbie travels through, as if through a wormhole. You really feel her swirling thoughts and questions and concerns and jealousies about her friends’ relationships. Marriage seems so terrible and beautiful, her friends seem so happy and miserable, like they can’t stand living with one another but would die if they were alone. Some of the scenes leaned into the chaos of modern life – with large neon letters wheeled about the stage by the cast – adding to the feeling that Bobbie is going a little bit nuts by her friends’ good intentions and expectations for her romantic life.
Seeing the show, as opposed to just listening a cast recording, re-contextualized all of the songs for me, giving me a deeper appreciation for Sondheim’s lyrics. They aren’t as straight forward as they seem when you hear them, often ironically describing what’s happening onstage (notably in “The Little Things You Do Together”, which I never realized was so funny!). I laughed hard and often, and also was brought to tears by this show. It does not shy away from the ugly realities of relationships but portrays the joys of love in a non-idealized way. And did I mention how funny it was? I had no idea. And unlike the laughs of Mrs. Doubtfire, which are all situational and jokey and might not be funny in 20 years, the laughs of Company were funny because they were true, true to life, true to then and true to now, and true to the inner life of the modern woman, sometimes painful, sometimes biting, but always funny.
Now, the elephant in the room: Patti Lupone was not present during the performance we saw, but other known Broadway staples were (Christopher Sieber and Christopher Fitzgerald were both SO GOOD, and Matt Doyle is someone we should all keep an eye on), and tbh the lady we saw in the role of Joanne knocked it out of the park. The role seems like an under-use of the great Ms. Lupone but I can also imagine her totally owning that role with her iconic flare. Katrina Lenk as Bobbie…… was fine? I was underwhelmed by her performance and was left wanting during THE big number “Being Alive”; her voice was not suited for it and it was an emotionally empty moment that should have been a gut punch.
TLDR: I LOVED this adaptation of Company and would recommend it to any human being who has ever been in love. I would see it again in a heart beat and must now go watch as many performances of this show online as I can find. Send me your favorites! Am I becoming a Sondheim fan?
To Kill a Mockingbird
I found this play to be incredibly moving. Staggeringly so at times. I was speechless at intermission.
By no means am I a Sorkin loyalist. Despite finding aspects of his past work problematic and annoying, I’ve enjoyed most of writing, even loving some of it. I also recognize his struggles to write a convincingly competent and non-irritating female character; that his main characters are usually men and characters, especially the women, are there to serve their (maybe) grandiose vision; that everyone in the room always thinks they are smarter than the other people in the room and have all of the answers; that every Sorkin piece will have some Monologues and Walk & Talks and everyone speaks a mile a minute. You expect Sorkin’s dialogue to be witty and clever (sometimes too much), biting and often funny. You can spot a Sorkin script three monologues and a soapbox away. He has a distinct voice that can drown out his characters or muddy the message, but damn, he knows how to tell a story.
ALL OF THAT TO SAY: I went into this Sorkin-adapted play based on one of the greatest American novels of all time (and one of my favorite books) optimistically cautious. On paper it sounds like an inspired idea, but would Sorkin get in his own way?
I can confidently say that THIS PLAY WAS INCREDIBLE and I wish I could see it again (I’m going to have to find the script to reread after I reread the book). It felt as if it had been written post-BLM for modern audiences yet still maintained the heart and soul of the original source material. (The play was originally produced in 2018, which I’d forgotten, but oof does it pack a different punch today.) The biggest changes were not to characters or themes or plot, which all remained the same as the book, but instead to the structure of how the story was told and to Atticus’s character arc.
The book, narrated by Scout looking back on a 3 year time period of her life, tells the story of Tom Robinson’s trial from her innocent child perspective. The play, though, gives all three children a narrational voice, allowing Scout, Jem and Dill to take turns breaking the 4th wall. The book follows a linear structure and takes a while to get into the trial that’s at the center of its story (did Tom Robinson really rape Mayella Ewell?) but the play jumps back and forth in time, kicking things off with a scene at the trial and returning to the trial as the kids tell stories of goings-on that relate to the trial.
I found the structure dynamic and engaging, breathing fresh life into this old but important tale. Even though the central story explores racism and racial inequality, the book doesn’t really give its Black characters a whole lot to do, so one of the highly effective changes in the play was to give a louder voice to Calpurnia, the housekeeper who helps Atticus raise his children (since his wife died). She’s a motherly figure to the children but more importantly fills the Mentor role to Atticus’ protagonist — which is the final, and largest change from page to stage: Scout is no longer the protagonist but Atticus Finch. And how do you make that man into a protagonist when he wasn’t in the book? One of the most important things about a leading character is that they must undergo change, but in the book, Atticus is Atticus from start to finish, we don’t see much growth. So Sorkin gives him an arc, putting his ethics under bright interrogation lights.
Not only is Tom Robinson on trial but so is Atticus’ morality. AND IT WORKS. Just how morally superior are you, Atticus? How ethical are your principles when you suggest that every person deserves respect — even those as vile and repugnant as Bob Ewell? Jem and Calpurnia’s characters push Atticus, forcing him to reckon with his beliefs. How can he say there are “really fine people on both sides” when people from Side A are literally trying to murder people from side B?**Note: Atticus does not say that quote. We know who said that quote.
Making Atticus the protagonist makes so much sense given the importance of the trial and its effects on the people of the town. Atticus must come down from his horse-high perch of ‘woke’ idealism as he realizes the ugly truths about the ‘fine’ people in the white hats trying to lynch his client (and also maybe him, the race traitor). We watch him struggle with his principles, which hadn’t failed him to this point; we watch him raise his spitfire children who see the world more clearly for what it is, as well as the professional challenge of dealing with people who straight up lie under oath…. the man is going to break down! And we get to see it. Then we get to see him get back up, time and time again. At the end of it all, we watch Atticus go from someone who isn’t actively racist to someone who is vehemently anti-racist, figuring out the differences along the way.
My biggest concern about this adaptation was that it would sound too much like its playwright and not like its characters but THANK GOODNESS, Sorkin didn’t get in his own way. The characters and Harper Lee’s original story shine bright. Sorkin lifts the story and characters up instead of drowning out their voices. And he nimbly takes us through all of the non-trial plot points at a good pace, never letting anything drag or let us forget about one of the subplots. The dialogue is excellent, much of it sounding like direct book quotes (even if they aren’t). There was lots of humor; I didn’t remember the book being so amusing, but the play needed the tension to break, so the kids/narrators have a lot of work to do in that regard.
The actors were all excellent, with the lady playing Calpurnia in a standout performance. The man who played the dispicable Bob Ewell was so convincing that I would not want to be in the same room as him (not an easy role to do well, without it being a caricature). The adult actors playing the kids embodied their young counterparts believably and with so much compassion and humor. I loved all of them, especially Dill and Jem (played by Hunter Parish, from Weeds!). One of the actors who plays multiple parts was deaf, so he signed his lines while other characters (without dialogue in that scene) would speak them; I’ve never seen anything like that in a show and enjoyed how they made it work: it felt seamless and a natural part of the production.
Now the elephant in THIS room: Jeff Daniels. Yes, we got to see Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus Finch……… and I just didn’t love him in the role. The man won a Tony for his performance back in 2018, but he was far too restrained in his performance; we had a hard time hearing his words (Sing out, Louise!) whether due to his ‘Southern’ accent or just being used to the intimacy of cinematic performance. Or maybe it was just the way he portrayed Atticus; stiff upper lip, stiff backed, very restrained. I wanted a broader range of emotion. I wanted to see more on his face. The dialogue was SO fantastic but he performed it all rather similarly. The performance was one-note, which didn’t work. Some of the earlier scenes needed to be less impassioned, some of the later scenes more so. This is a meaty role, an actor’s dream, and I’d really love to see another take on it. (Greg Kinnear is taking over for Daniels, and I kinda love that? Before seeing the show, I couldn’t picture Kinnear in the role, but afterwards, yes, sign me up. I think his Atticus would be a bit warmer, with a softer touch.)
TLDR: A lovingly crafted adaptation that pays homage to the original, allowing the themes and spirit of Harper Lee’s work to shine, while updating the structure and pacing for modern audiences. I would love to do a comparative study of the book and the play, side by side, to examine how they portray the same characters and events. It’s a challenging work, an entertaining night at the theatre sure, but more importantly one that will leave you reexamining your own morality.
Have you seen any of these shows? How do you feel the adaptations were handled? What’s your favorite stage adaptation? What’s your least favorite? Have you seen any major stars in a show only to be disappointed?