This might sound familiar to film buffs: A lying and philandering U.S. president suffers a debilitating stroke and is furtively replaced by a body double, who then foils the plot by honoring duty and country. So goes a new musical remake of the 1993 movie “Dave” by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures that is debuting with Broadway aspirations at D.C.’s Arena Stage. New York does seem a plausible goal for this enjoyably light-hearted show, but its creators might first consider reworking an overtly maudlin finale.
There’s much to admire in the homespun fable about integrity and patriotism, wrapped in an inviting package filled with buffoonery and self-deprecating humor. In an even-keeled production from top-tier creators and talent, any resemblance to actual current White House occupants is strictly fortuitous — that is, if you overlook the Twitter-prone president who can’t spell. Call it a timeless show that couldn’t be timelier.
Highlights include composer Tom Kitt’s delightful collection of melodies, and writer Nell Benjamin’s hilarious book and lyrics that showcase the same deft touch for wry phrasing she employs in “Mean Girls.” Director Tina Landau (“SpongeBob SquarePants”) keeps the proceedings flowing quickly throughout the technically complicated production.
The cast is led by a versatile Drew Gehling (“Waitress”) in the dual role originated by Kevin Kline in the film, playing the unscrupulous president and the unassuming nerd who lands the big guy’s job, plus his broken marriage too. (In this version, he’s an American history teacher and Abraham Lincoln-phile freshly out of work due to budget cuts.) Gehling nails the yin-and-yang acting assignments by balancing sneers and attitude with goofy grins and ungainly movements, while his strong tenor voice leads the company with assurance.
Other principals include Mamie Parris as the estranged and principled First Lady (Sigourney Weaver in the film) and Douglas Sills as the villainous chief of staff, fully capitalizing on the role of a lifetime. Bryonha Marie Parham is just right as the conflicted White House aide, while her remarkable soprano voice adds luster, and as the earnest Secret Service agent, Josh Breckenridge deepens the story nicely, especially in his act one number, “Not My Problem.”
The musical opens with a frenetic number, “There’s Always a Way,” in which a breathless Gehling switches between his two roles, including costume changes. It’s quickly followed by a riotous ensemble piece, “I’m the President,” in which the oily executive flaunts his flaws. “Leave me alone, America — I just want to be President!” he bellows.
The brisk pace continues throughout, aided by Dane Laffrey’s inventive set composed of four concentric cylindrical walls that spin on tracks when pushed by performers. Each turn reveals a new location, such as the Oval Office, the Lincoln Bedroom and the U.S. Capitol. All are identified via projections that embellish visuals throughout the show.
Other standout numbers include the riotous “Bad Example” and Dave’s endearing ode to Lincoln, “Hero.” Act two is enlivened by the dream number, “President’s Party,” in which a sleeping Dave is visited by a wacky platoon of 19th century presidents. Parris’ musical talents are also on display throughout, highlighted by the duet with Gehling, “Not Again.” Choreographer Sam Pinkleton’s most fully developed number is the eye-popping act two opener, “Kill That Guy,” featuring an ensemble of black suited CIA agents in aviator shades.
Over the course of the plot, the pivotal Dave-Ellen relationship develops methodically as the characters unite around a legislative crusade to find eldercare, and in the process foil the chief of staff’s conspiracy and fall in love. The film, by contrast, ignored the relationship’s bonding phase.
Feel-good moments include a scene at a D.C. ball park when the faux president is invited to throw out the first pitch. It nicely morphs from a parody of modern anthem vocalizations to a legitimate heart-tugger as Dave completes the song when the young singer flubs the lyrics. Sadly, the production then proceeds to overplay its patriotic messages with a heavy-handed finale that undermines its good intentions. Will today’s Broadway audience really go for that?