Review: ‘Dave’ at Arena Stage

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The real news getting you down? Do you have a plentitude of cares and woes hanging over your head? Are you an addicted MSNBC watcher who wants to get off the couch and away from the cell for a few hours of “R&R,” as it was once known?

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast, in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Well, Arena Stage has a remedy for you. Not a newly branded miracle prescription drug, but the new musical, Dave. This musical is likely to bring needed sunshine to many a progressive-in-bent theatergoer with its playful mocking of a Presidential Administration. Without naming names, Dave seems written just this week.

Dave is lighthearted escapist amusement. It centers upon a wholesome, idealistic young man named Dave who has a major Abraham Lincoln fetish. He becomes a paid-by-the-hour, look-alike, stand-in for the President hired from a YouTube video by the Secret Service. Why was he hired? Seems the elected President has finally had his comeuppance for his randy ways while celebrating a bit too hard at the beginning of his second term. Not only was the elected President a less than nice person, but he is one with a disregard for the country’s needs, putting his own needs first. And he cares not a fig for the simple wish of his loyal wife that he stay monogamous.

Dave is a musical with a great pedigree of creative talent. The book is by Thomas Meehan (Annie) and Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde, Mean Girls). Music is by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. There are sixteen original musical numbers, ranging from big fun production numbers (“Bad Example,” “Kill That Guy,” and “Presidential Party”) to an aching ballad about love that seems permanently undone (“Not Again”) as well as songs that define characters through fine singing rather than just dialogue (“Not My Problem,” “Here” and “History”).

The spotless music direction is by Rob Berman (New York City’s Encore Series) with an orchestra of seven musicians. Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, two production numbers (both in Act II) stand out for their sheer exuberance—“Kill That Guy,” and “Presidential Party.” Watch out Washington Nationals, you don’t have the only running Presidents in town anymore.

Yes, the musical Dave has been adapted from the 1993 film of the same name. But now that the film has been mentioned, whip it away from your mind. The film and this new musical are very different creatures—and more so, the 2018 zeitgeist is not what was in 1993.

Dave’s director is Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants). Landau brings a sharp understanding of politics that underpins the production’s sometimes meaty aspects. More so, she has a droll, wonderfully “over-the-top” sense of humor and comic timing. Landau is the high-octane propellant for Dave. She also has a keen sense for those who have been wronged or abused by the unforgivable behavior of a man.

Many of the featured cast in Dave are making their debuts at Arena Stage. The lead character of Dave is played by Drew Gehling (Broadway’s Waitress). With an appealing tenor voice, Gehling has an earnest manner about him and exudes decency (although too much decency can seem overly sweet). In his performance as a most temporary President, a parallel came to my mind: he was almost channeling Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

(L to R) Mamie Parris (Ellen Mitchell) and Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.
(L to R) Mamie Parris (Ellen Mitchell) and Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The mistreated First Lady is portrayed by Mamie Parris. She is a vulnerable woman who has been hurt by her husband, the elected president and is keeping a self-protective distance from additional hurt. She is in a shell that readily comes through in the arc of ballads she sings with a voice that demands and deserves audience attention. She sings “The Last Time I Fake It” demanding to be understood. I sat in attention, utterly hearing her pain and frustrations.

Along the way, the audience comes to know a delightful group of supporting players. Douglas Sills plays a cunning Chief of Staff perfectly, with great bravado and a rich baritone voice. As the Chief of Staff, Sills has many juicy moments in both dialogue and song. Some shout-outs to a former Vice President are richly rewarded with audience laughter. When Sills uses the word “snowflakes” it brought a roar. But best of all was his  work in Act II’s opening cute number “Kill That Guy,” with a gaggle of “CIA operatives.” Aimed at Dave who was beginning to speak his own mind, it was a total joy of non-stop choreographed movement, tongue-in-cheek song lyrics Sills sang with a raised eyebrow that completely woke up any post-intermission sleepiness.

As the President’s Communications Director, Bryonha Marie Parham brings plenty of pizzazz and steel to her portrayal. She is someone not to mess with; that is clear. When she showed the full range of her operatic soprano while singing Act I’s “Bad Example,” (the difference between what is legal and what is right) that was one special to-be-remembered moment. She just shattered the place with her smooth vocal reach.

As a Secret Service man with the continuing through line, “I can’t say,” Josh Breckenridge brings his own quiet steel to his role. He is also the man who helps set the temporary President on the straight road. Breckenridge has two big moments of singing, including “Not My Problem” with Gehling, and “A Little Too Late” with Gehling and Parris. His commanding voice befits a man with a gun and a badge.

The interesting scenic design by Dane Laffrey is one of a number of moving pieces. Mostly it is comprised of semi-circular translucent panels that give what could have been a static show a sense of constant movement.

At times, I felt there were forced, almost “cheap pulls to patriotism” demanded in the script. One particular moment just caught me wrong, although I understood how it showed the decency of the character Dave. Let’s just say if I wanted to take a knee in that audience at that moment, I would have been booed and hissed at.

So, let me conclude as I sometimes do. I overheard many in the sold-out audience blissfully happy to be away from the real news political woes for a few hours. They enjoyed the light spanking and jabs aimed at the pompous President who finally got his just desserts. They enjoyed the happy ending as well. I do have to wonder if a show that is such easy food for a DC hometown crowd would make it elsewhere. But, who am I to wonder?

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Dave plays through August 19, 2018, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or go online.

Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about Dave.

Note: Dave is by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, The Donners’ Company and Larger Than Life. Based on the Warner Bros. motion picture written by Gary Ross.

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