There’s no denying that President Trump casts a shadow over all things political nowadays. For the new musical “Dave,” an adaptation of the 1993 film about a presidential doppelganger who steps in for the real commander in chief, there was a time when Trump was more than a specter — he was a character.
His appearance in the show would have riffed on Oliver Stone’s meta cameo in the film, when the “JFK” director appears on “Larry King Live” to insist that the man in the Oval Office isn’t actually the president. King doesn’t buy it, and the audience enjoys a knowing chuckle.
“We actually had Trump be the guy who figured it out and said, ‘I want to see his birth certificate,’” recalls Nell Benjamin, the lyricist and co-writer of the “Dave” musical. “That, mercifully, is gone.”
Such is the challenge of staging a White House-centric production in 2018. With American politics seen through a rapidly shifting gaze, the creative team’s vision came into focus during the show’s four-year road to the stage: This take on “Dave,” which opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 19 at Arena Stage, had to function independent of the current political climate.
“We’ve worked hard not to make this show specifically topical,” director Tina Landau says. “We don’t reference any particular thing that’s going on, or any person. … It’s a fairy tale and a fable of kinds, and we’ve tried to keep it in that very distinct world where it references and echoes and reverberates with our own but is not a depiction of it.”
Just as writer Gary Ross put a then-modern spin on “The Prince and the Pauper” with the film, which starred Kevin Kline, this production is carving its own identity.
Fresh off directing the lively “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical, Landau drew inspiration from “The West Wing’s” famed walk-and-talk scenes to pin down a kinetic energy for the show. With a book co-written by the late Thomas Meehan, who won Tonys for his work on “Annie,” “The Producers” and “Hairspray,” the production also ramped up the comedy. The musical numbers came courtesy of “Mean Girls” lyricist Benjamin and Tom Kitt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of “Next to Normal.”
“We get to tell a very, very timeless story,” says actor Drew Gehling, who plays both President Bill Mitchell and his earnest everyman impersonator, Dave Kovic. “And we get to do it with a wonderfully funny book and a hugely inventive score, and choreography and movement that are surprising.”
It’s no coincidence that the “Dave” team chose to put on this production at Arena Stage, a stone’s throw from the political machinations the show portrays. Alluding to a potential Broadway run, Benjamin says: “If we can speak to people to whom government is in their backyard … we feel like we’ll have the background to then take it to a broader audience.”
Benjamin emphasizes that “Dave” has no interest in a partisan slant. It’s a sentiment echoed by Gehling, who says that “regardless of political affiliation or politics in general, this show embodies an innocence of spirit and an open-mindedness that is a reminder to everyone of the best person they can be.”
“[The show] doesn’t comment intellectually or try to analyze or preach about what is going on in our world,” Landau says. “But it is relatable, is recognizable and ultimately tells a story that wakes us up again to stories of hope and belief in our own efficacy as citizens. What I hope for, above all, is a piece that touches the heart and leads to action.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; through Aug. 19, $40-$140.