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A CurtainUp DC Review
The plot is simple: a history teacher, Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling), who bears an uncanny resemblance to President Mitchell loses his job. In order to cover his bills that include elder care for his ailing father, Dave does impersonations of the President and also makes tacky Abraham Lincoln look-alike sculptures with pennies.
The tall and lanky Drew Gehling sings and moves well and grows into his part as he becomes a decent and likable President—, a model Washington has not seen in a while.
When President Mitchell suffers a fatal stroke while in flagrante delicto with a young, winsome White House aide, his Chief of Staff Bob Alexander,(Douglas Sills in a superbly cynical performance that brings to mind former Chief of Staff Dick Cheney), desperate to hold on to his power, sends for the President's impersonator. .
The ensuing tutorial Alexander gives on deceased President Mitchell's mannerisms and speech topics, readies the charmingly naive Dave about the ways of Washington and, or so he thinks, secures his job for another term. This makes it time to suspend disbelief — How can the death of a President be kept secret? . . .How come the Vice President is not permitted to move into the job he was elected to do? . . . and so on. But by this time the show has become such a delicious satire of the wiles of Washington, nobody gives a damn! As long as the zingers keep coming the audience is more than willing to go along with the very clever book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, as well as lyrics by Nell Benjamin and theatrical tricks devised by director Tina Landau.
I think it is fair to say that the audience goes with the flow through the entire 100-minute first act, particularly in a scene that involves the singing of the National Anthem at the beginning of the Washington Nationals baseball season. The rest of the main characters deliver strong performances, notably the Secret Service guy working closest with the President, Duane Bolden (a wonderfully deadpan Josh Breckenridge); but also Susan Lee, the top administrator in charge of keeping things moving, (played and sung with a very strong voice by Bryonha Marie Parham) and Ellen Mitchell, the First Lady who has a political agenda of her own (Mamie Parris).
Tom Kitt's music, which is neither original nor inspiring, is played well by a nine-piece orchestra that's on-stage but hidden from the audience's view. Sets by Dane Laffrey comprised of projected images on semi-circular scrims and patriotically red, white and blue costumes by Toni-Leslie James serve the piece well. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton's take on the Secret Service's eavesdropping gets a good laugh.
After a short intermission, "Kill That Guy," a solo about revenge and power, brings the musical to its satirical crescendo. Songs this good come along too rarely. Sills delivers this so deliciously deadpan and serious, that it has the audience doubled-over with laughter. What follows those lyrics and that performance is a letdown causing the musical to lose its momentum, particularly in a dream sequence in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom as the President is visited by former Presidents. And a quasi love scene has been obviously awaited since the middle of Act One.
But musicals are supposed to end on a happy note. So the last number, "It's On Us," with placards encouraging people to vote, has its charm. So does a sweet little soft shoe dance by Sherrie L. Edelen who plays a Tour Guide and President Taft among other small roles.
When asked in an interview what's the takeaway from Dave, Director Tina Landau's answer was that she would like the public to get out and vote. May she get her wish.
Book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin
Music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Based on the Warner Bros. Motion Picture "Dave"
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Directed by Tina Landau
Music Direction by Michael Starobin
Set Design by Dane Laffrey;
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James
Cast: Jenny Ashman (Reporter/Ensemble); Jared Bradshaw (Reporter/Harding/Ensemble); Josh Breckenridge (Duane Bolden); Dana Costello (Reporter/Montana Jefferson/Ensemble); Trista Dollison (Reporter/Harrison/Ensemble); Sherrie L. Edelen (Tour Guide/Mrs. Smit/Taft/Ensemble); Rachel Flynn (Randi Hagopian/Ensemble); Kevin R. Free (Murray Stein/Adams/Ensemble); Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell); Adam J. Levy (Mr. Wheeler/Ensemble); Bryonha Marie Parham (Susan Lee); Mamie Parris (Ellen Mitchell); Erin Quill (Reporter/Hayes/Ensemble);Jonathan Rayson (Gary Nance/Johnson/Ensemble); Jamison Scott (Reporter/Buchanan/Ensemble);Douglas Sills (Bob Alexander); Vishal Vaidya (Paul/Ensemble).
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one 10-minute intermission. Arena Stage/Kreeger Theater, arenastage.org; July 18 to August 19, 2018. Reviewed
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