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BWW Review: Optimism Abounds in World Premiere of DAVE at Arena Stage

BWW Review: Optimism Abounds in World Premiere of DAVE at Arena Stage
Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Screen to stage adaptations aren't exactly a rarity in today's musical theater scene, but some are certainly better than others. Such is the case with Dave, now premiering at the Tony Award-winning Arena Stage. Based on Gary Ross' 1993 Oscar-nominated political comedy of the same name, this musical production boasts a creative team that - even on paper - was probably going to put together something pretty special. Thomas Meehan (recently deceased) and Nell Benjamin are credited with the book (Benjamin also wrote the lyrics). Tom Kitt wrote the music. Tina Landau, of Steppenwolf fame, directs the production. For the most part, the talented team succeeds in delivering a fun experience for local DC area theatergoers that are more than likely to know a little something about the crazy world that is American politics.

Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling) is a passionate American history teacher keen on making sure his students not only understand what Abraham Lincoln did for this country, but can also recite the Gettysburg Address. His teaching career unfortunately comes to an abrupt end thanks to budget cuts. Bill Mitchell (Drew Gehling) has just been reelected as president and he's hardly the biggest supporter of educational spending (or anything that doesn't serve himself) so it's not exactly a surprise. Now without a job, Dave must find a way to support himself and take care of the costs associated with his father's death. He bares an uncanny resemblance to President Mitchell so he starts doing impersonation videos for money, which are made available on a YouTube channel (certainly an update from the movie). Cue a call from the White House. He's asked to be a body double for the President, but the job turns out to be a little less temporary when President Mitchell suffers a stroke while having extramarital relations with his secretary Randi (Rachel Flynn).

Former CIA Director turned Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Douglas Sills) and PR guru Susan Lee (Bryonha Marie Parham) are less than eager to let Vice President Nance (Jonathan Rayson) assume the presidency so they concoct a scheme to have Dave stand in as President Mitchell - with them pulling the strings of course. They'll have to pull one over on the First Lady Ellen Mitchell (Mamie Parris), but that won't be hard because they barely speak. Dave is goaded into participating - let's just say Alexander, like any good former intelligence professional, uses his Lincoln weakness to his advantage - but as time wears on it becomes clear he's not as easy to manipulate as they expected. The Mitchell Administration undergoes a change that can't be easily ignored. Optimism abounds, but can it last? Should it?

Meehan and Benjamin's book is chock full of references that are bound to make any political junkie chuckle a bit, especially given the current state of the American presidency, though some are more nuanced than others. International relations nerd that I am, I personally liked the G7 reference. While the old adage "less is more" may apply, especially in the overly long first Act, they more or less serve the story well.

Kitt's contemporary music, orchestrated by Michael Starobin, is one of the show's strongest assets. While it isn't quite as varied as some of previous work (e.g. Next to Normal, which also played Arena Stage) many of the numbers underscore the optimistic tone of the story. Musically speaking, there aren't really any duds and all are well performed by the musicians and the cast (Rob Berman is musical director). Benjamin's witty lyrics help move the plot forward more often than not. It's a cohesive and pleasing score all around.

If I would offer any criticism in this area, it would be that there are simply too many songs in the first act - and some go on for far too long to be effective. For example, while a song about caring for your elders fits the story (eldercare is something Dave and First Lady Mitchell care about greatly), I didn't think "Everyone Needs Some Help Sometimes" would ever end even if the ensemble cast seems to have a ball performing it. A similar problem emerges in the shorter second act. Douglas Sills and the ensemble perform the heck out of the amusingly dark "Kill That Guy," (featuring Sam Pinkleton's choreography), but it too seems to go on forever.

Speaking of performing the heck out of something, the cast is also one of the show's strongest assets from principal actors down to the ensemble. It's uniformly strong. You can't help but hate Drew Gehling as Bill Mitchell and root for him to succeed as Dave. Mamie Parris, who is possibly one of the two best vocalists along with Bryonha Marie Parham, plays off Gehling really well and it's a trip to watch their relationship change. Douglas Sills is deliciously evil as the conniving Chief of Staff Bob Alexander. Josh Breckenridge provides a memorable performance as Secret Service Officer Duane Bolden (his number "Not My Problem" is a highlight). The ensemble cast performs every scene with an abundance of energy.

If I had to offer a few major gripes about this production, it would be some of the technical design elements. Chief among them is the decision to employ rotating walls/panels in the scenic design (Dane Laffrey). While it's possible they were always intended to be automated and the team encountered technical difficulties, it is hugely distracting as an audience member to watch actors struggle to pull or push the walls as a scene is happening further downstage. Scene changes are, likewise, far from smooth and easy. Instead, they are long and tedious. No matter what technical problem occurred and when, it was difficult for me to see why this particular design choice was selected over another - whether automation was possible or not. Like many Broadway musicals today, there is also an overabundance of projections (Peter Nigrini) in this musical though some serve the piece really well (e.g. images of Lincoln and news videos).

These issues aside, Dave is a really fun show with a strong cast. It's just the right kind of show we need in DC right now. While questions might emerge as to whether it can play elsewhere, I would suggest that no matter where you live, you may be eager to immerse yourself in a world of political optimism for a few hours.

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

DAVE plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th Street Southwest in Washington, DC, through August 19, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry