×

D.C. Theater Review: ‘Dave,’ The Musical

In this patriotic fable wrapped in an inviting package, it's hard not to see a resemblance to the White House's real-life occupant.

With:
Drew Gehling, Mamie Parris, Douglas Sills, Bryonah Marie Parham, Josh Breckenridge.

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?

Popular on Variety

D.C. Theater Review: 'Dave,' The Musical

Arena Stage Kreeger Theater; 500 seats; $176. Opened July 27, 2018. Reviewed July 28. TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: An Arena Stage presentation, by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, the Donners’ Company and Larger Than Life, of a musical in two acts with book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Benjamin, based on the Warner Bros. film “Dave” written by Gary Ross.

Creative: Directed by Tina Landau. Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. Sets, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Japhy Weideman; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; music direction, Rob Berman; sound, Walter Trarbach; projections, Peter Nigrini.

Cast: Drew Gehling, Mamie Parris, Douglas Sills, Bryonah Marie Parham, Josh Breckenridge.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content