There’s a moment in the new musical, Dave, now playing at D.C.’s Arena Stage, where the entire audience jumps to its feet and bursts into song. I won’t spoil the moment for you by saying anything more (and I hope other reviews follow suit). Timing is everything and Dave’s arrival certainly proves that point. If you are looking for a way to escape the 24 hour cable news cycle that provides little good news these days, don’t wait. Get tickets for Dave now! In New York? Jump on Amtrak because, like another Arena production, Dear Evan Hansen, Dave is headed for Broadway and Tony nominations.
Drew Gehling as Dave in Arena’s Production
In fact, Broadway has come to Arena with a cast and producing team boasting impressive credentials. Tina Landau’s directing credits include Bells Are Ringing (the 2001 revival which starred Faith Prince), Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, and a 2018 Tony Award nomination for SpongeBob SquarePants. Music Director Rob Berman is the music director for the very successful Encore! Series at the New York City Center. The list goes on: Nell Benjamin, book writer and lyricist, co-wrote the score to Legally Blonde with her husband, Laurence O’Keefe; Tom Kitt, composer, received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as two Tony Awards for Next to Normal; Thomas Meehan, book writer, has won three Tonys for Annie, The Producers (co-written with Mel Brooks), and Hairspray (co-written with Mark O’Donnell); Sam Pinkleton’s choreography includes Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; orchestrator Michael Starobin’s resume includes Falsettos, Sunday in the Park with George, and Assassins; and Dane Laffrey’s work as a set designer is on display in the current revival of Once on This Island.
The musical is based on the 1993 film that starred Kevin Kline as an optimistic and generous every-man whose day job is running an employment agency but who earns extra money by impersonating the president. A one-time gig stepping in for President Bill Mitchell turns into a fulltime job when the chief executive suffers a massive stroke while having sex with one of his assistants. Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played in the film by Frank Langella), hoping to seize power for himself, comes up with the plan to have Dave continue the masquerade. Dave is so good at being Mitchell he even fools the first lady, Ellen (Sigourney Weaver in the film), and the president’s popularity ratings soar.
Mamie Parris and Drew Gehling
Casting for Arena’s production is inspired. As Dave, Drew Gehling, who won raves for his role as Dr. Pomatter in the Tony-nominated musical, Waitress, has the exuberance and boyish charm that makes the character Dave instantly likable, whether he’s playing himself or the faux Mitchell. His Dave is a high school history teacher with a particular interest in the presidents and a fan-like devotion for Lincoln. The musical makes good use of Gehling’s appealing baritone; he sings in all but two numbers. But besides his singing abilities, Gehling can act, using his body language and facial expressions to great effect.
As Ellen, Mamie Parris, whose Broadway roles include Cats and School of Rock, stands her ground against the man she believes is her arrogant, philandering, real husband. But as the story continues, she finds herself gradually won over. Parris has an appealing voice and her duets with Gehling not only advance the story, but create tension, admiration, and soon, love.
Douglas Sills and Cast
Douglas Sills knocks it out of the park as Bob Alexander. He’s so much fun to watch that we forget that his character is plotting to bring down the government and install himself as dictator. He’s center stage in “Kill that Guy,” backed up with a terrific team of dancers dressed as CIA spies. In this version, Alexander was once head of the CIA.
In the film, the White House Communications Director was played by Kevin Dunn. In Arena’s production, Bryonha Marie Parham (last seen at the Kennedy Center in Ragtime), is Susan Lee, a nod to the fact that since 1993, more women have taken on high profile jobs in the White House. Parham, whose resume includes classical performances such as appearing in Bernstein’s Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, displays her considerable vocal talents in several numbers, including the lively “I’m the President.”
Josh Breckenridge and Drew Gehling
As Secret Service agent Duane Bolden, tasked with protecting the president, Josh Breckenridge is a standout. He nails the professional demeanor the public associates with those who put their lives on the line each day. His powerful baritone soars in “Not My Problem,” as he attempts to outline his duties to the novice chief executive. And he receives a laugh each time he responds, “I couldn’t say,” to whatever query comes his way.
Kevin R. Free, as Dave’s accountant, Murray, is understandably overwhelmed and alarmed by his friend’s ascension to power, but takes the time to help him trim money from the national budget in order to fund one of the first lady’s pet projects. Special mention must be given to Sherri L. Edelen, whose several roles, including one as an annoying White House tour guide, show her versatility and why she remains a D.C. fan favorite.
Staging is brilliant. Movable semi-circular dividers allow for quick scene changes with minimal fuss, while also echoing the curved icons that dominate D.C. – the Oval Office, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Capitol. Dave is about our government and our nation’s capital, subjects that resonate with D.C. audiences. How will it play in other cities? That remains to be seen. But a clear message is sent in the finale with the cast marching with signs that proclaim “Vote!”
Photos by Margot Schulman
Directed by Tina Landau
1011 Sixth Street, SW
Through August 19, 2018