Middle of the road political humor will never go out of style in Washington. Locals, transplants, and tourists laugh and smile at the funny-because-it’s-true material that keeps groups like the Capitol Steps in business for decades but hardly ever challenges the status quo. Daring to say anything more transgressive in the name of comedy only brings reprimands from Big Media—just ask Michelle Wolf.
Dave, the musical adaptation of the 1993 Kevin Kline comedy about a presidential impersonator tasked with filling in for the commander in chief, exists peacefully in this middle ground. Audiences chuckle at jokes about an image-obsessed president with a compulsion to share his thoughts on social media. They dutifully rise when “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays midway through the first act. It lands like a less bombastic version of The West Wing, celebrating an everyman who uses his suddenly acquired power to appeal to America and the audience’s sense of liberty and justice, our lowest common emotional denominator.
The entire premise requires an enormous suspension of disbelief—there’s absolutely no way a presidential double could pass as the real thing in the 24-hour news cycle, especially when the president is supposed to be recovering from a stroke. Like many movie-to-musical adaptations, a fondness for the source material makes up for this conceit, and for the show’s forgettable songs.
This is not to say that Dave lacks entertainment value. It’s the kind of light-hearted, feel-good fare suited for a summer day when you want to sit in an air-conditioned room. It just so happens to remind you that the executive branch of our real government is less than stable.
The company, most of whom are New York stage veterans, sell the production to the best of their abilities, starting with Drew Gehling, who bounds through every scene with exuberance while playing both Dave, the presidential impersonator, and the president he is impersonating, Bill Mitchell. Douglas Sills, as Chief of Staff Bob Alexander, gives the show’s villain a sinister vibe reminiscent of Dick Cheney, while Josh Breckenridge, as Dave’s secret service officer, Duane, transcends the “wise black friend” role and brings some emotion to a character who’s supposed to say very little. Dave sings nearly every song in the show and is applauded after all of them, but it’s Duane’s solo number, “Not My Problem,” that makes the audience stop and listen.
Moments like those prove that Dave is more than just political platitudes. With one expertly delivered joke about panda impotence, director Tina Landau and book and lyrics writer Nell Benjamin (who collaborated on the book with the late Thomas Meehan) show that they have taken the time to understand D.C. in a way other out-of-towners attempting to write about our fair city have not. It endears audiences to the show, which has found a perfect home at Arena, even if the moving walls and projections that make up its set feel a little cramped on the Kreeger Theater stage.
This is the trouble with Dave. If it has Broadway ambitions—and plenty of signs point in that direction—it’s not quite ready to join the ranks of other movie-to-musical translations lighting up the stage. Right now, it appeals to local audiences who are equally conversant in politics and theater. Its broader appeal is buried beneath insider jokes and its source material can be rented for less than $3 online.
To Aug. 19 at 1101 6th St. SW. $140–$176. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.