The ingredients are all there for a delightful romp through executive time: An utterly charming leading man; a well-matched, Broadway-tested composer and lyricist; an intuitively gifted director — and an ideal backdrop for sharp-elbowed, contemporary political satire.
Now comes the harder part: marshaling these elements for a confection affirming that a funny story seasoned with show tunes stimulates the synapses like no other form of entertainment. At the moment for “Dave,” the world-premiere musical comedy at Arena Stage, that lofty goal remains an admirable aspiration, and one that ultimately may be reached. But first, this visually dynamic show — in a Washington tryout phase at Arena much like “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” before it — needs to address some of the early-draft issues that leave a theatergoer with a middling impression, courtesy of a weaker second act that dissipates its impact with campiness and easy laughs, and resolves itself too tritely.
The first-rate theater minds assembled for “Dave,” under the stewardship of director Tina Landau — a Tony nominee for her inspired staging of “SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical” — surely can hone this material and play even more smartly with its Capraesque formula, adapted from a 1993 movie comedy that starred Kevin Kline. Because “Dave” has something moving to say, possibly something we desperately need to hear, about leadership in a democracy, when it is in danger of being stamped out for lack of it.
Theatergoers in the nation’s capital will have a good time finding the local resonances in the story of a laid-off high school history teacher named Dave Kovic — played endearingly by youthful, dashingly down-to-earth Drew Gehling — who happens to be the spitting image of the comatose president, Bill Mitchell. Via the logic-erasing purview of fairy tales, down-on-his-luck Dave is clandestinely installed as an Oval Office replacement by chief of staff Bob Alexander, expertly embodied by Douglas Sills as a Machiavellian ideologue who thinks government should be reduced to a desk and an 800 number. Not even Bill’s angry, two-timed wife, Ellen (the beautifully voiced Mamie Parris) can tell that Dave is a fraud (even though Dave, in a shower scene, has back hair, and philandering Bill, seen earlier from the, uh, rear, in bed with an assistant, doesn’t).
Ivan Reitman’s movie keyed in on the personality change the White House undergoes after benevolent Dave takes the place of reprehensible Bill. The musical, with a book by Nell Benjamin and the late Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Benjamin and music by Tom Kitt, is decidedly more partisan. The linkage it suggests between the repellent Mitchell — also played by Gehling — and an actual chief executive is far more blatant.
“So Mr. Kovic, why do all presidents now suck?” one of Dave’s students asks in the opening scene, before school budget cuts eliminate Dave’s job. The use of the plural fails to camouflage the musical’s political preferences. Am I wrong in suggesting that such a cutting line would have been unthinkable in a musical during the Obama administration? (In the film version, Dave was just the owner of a small employment agency working on the side as a tacky presidential impersonator; here he’s a Lincoln-loving academic who ekes out a living from piggy banks built out of pennies in his idol’s likeness.)
Fans of Democratic administrations will be pleased to learn that part of the Dave revolution concerns his do-gooder’s desire to reverse course and expand government social-welfare programs, a cornerstone of which is an “Eldercare” initiative championed by Ellen. The way to a disaffected first lady’s heart, it seems, is through her agenda. Still, couldn’t Dave push for something, I don’t know, a little grander and therefore sexier? Like outlawing poverty, maybe? We are, after all, in the world here of federal fairy tales.
Kitt and Benjamin’s up-tempo pop score is sprightly but uneven. One of the better comic songs, “Bad Example,” has Dave sparring wittily with Sills’s Bob and pragmatic press secretary Susan Lee, played with appealing vivacity by Bryonha Marie Parham, and Dave’s aspirational song, “Hero,” is delivered by Gehling with a winning esprit. Perhaps the evening’s best number, though, is “Not My Problem,” a tender duet for Dave and, of all people, his Secret Service agent Duane (a superb Josh Breckenridge).
An ensemble number in the second act, meanwhile, “Presidential Party,” in which mediocre past presidents — Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, et al. — visit Dave in a hallucinatory sequence, is itself downright cringeworthy. The song is emblematic of a general deterioration of imagination in Act 2. Once Ellen has discovered Dave’s true identity and Bob gets his comeuppance, the dramatic tension heads for the exits of Arena’s Kreeger Theater. The evening’s final half-hour, as a result, comes across as flat and pat.
Landau, in collaboration with set designer Dane Laffrey, lighting designer Japhy Weideman and projection designer Peter Nigrini, devises a compelling physical concept for “Dave,” with a concentric series of wall segments on tracks. The four walls are made up of screen-like panels onto which Nigrini’s images materialize, and they are pushed and pulled into place by cast members to create the various scenes in the White House and around the city. The nifty effect lends the production a jaunty cinematic sense of kinesis, while also helping to propel the evening’s farcical mechanics. Toni-Leslie James’s costumes, on the other hand, look as if they could use another session in the fitting room.
Gehling is given lots of stage time, a decided advantage for “Dave.” But just as there needs to be a bit more thought in the early scenes to how Gehling might differentiate more potently the real president from the ersatz one, the show’s writers and director might also want to ruminate on enlarging upon the inner transformation Dave undergoes later in the show. We’re beset these days by a divisive celebrity in the White House who insists on labeling as fake anyone who seeks to tell the truth. “Dave” could still rise to this nation’s turbulent occasion, by even more adroitly revealing to us how a fake president can be a better leader than a real one.
Correction: An earlier version of this review said that in the film version of “Dave,” the title character was an “out-of-work schlub”; he was the owner of a small employment agency.
Dave, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, book by Benjamin and Thomas Meehan. Directed by Tina Landau. Music direction, Rob Berman; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; sets, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Japhy Weideman; projections, Peter Nigrini; sound, Walter Trarbach; choreography, Sam Pinkleton; wigs, Robert-Charles Vallance. With Rachel Flynn, Jonathan Rayson, Kevin R. Free, Dana Costello. About 2½ hours. $140-$184. Through Aug. 19 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org or 202-488-4300.