A warm and wonderful film is well on its way to becoming an equally impressive musical.
Twenty-five years ago, DAVE was a hit movie that charmed the nation. This new take on THE PRISONER OF ZENDA made temp-agency owner Dave Kovic a perfect look-alike for United States President Bill Mitchell. Dave is even so convincing that he’s been impersonating the Chief Exec at local events.
When Mitchell is expected to speak at a fancy dinner, he orders a double to take his place so that he can instead enjoy an extramarital tryst with Randi. That’s where Dave comes in.
Randi must be extremely hot stuff, because Mitchell in media res endures a totally debilitating stroke that puts him on life-support.
Mitchell’s Chief of Staff Bob Alexander has venal motives on why he turns Dave’s one-night-only gig into a permanent position. What Bob doesn’t bank on is that Dave will be lionized by the office and turn Bob’s rejected bills on Social Security, elder care and national parks into law.
These moves finally get “Bill” in good with First Lady Ellen who long ago gave up on her husband’s integrity both in and out of office.
Thomas Meehan was writing the libretto for this musical version that’s now at Arena Stage in the District of Columbia. Alas, he died a year ago, so lyricist Nell Benjamin assumed his job, too. Neither he nor she settled for simply putting Ross’ screenplay, excellent though it is, on stage. In many ways, the co-bookwriters have improved it.
First they turned Dave into a high-school history teacher. This allows him to tell his students, as so many have done before him, “Someone in this room could be president.”
Not only that, someone will.
One problem in the film: Dave obviously was gone from his business for a long time and none of his employees thought much of his absence. Here Dave is laid off from his teaching job which gives him plenty of free time.
Meehan and/or Benjamin did err, however, in giving Dave a sick father who lives with him. We must wonder what’s happening to Dad while Dave is, to say the least, otherwise engaged.
However, Ross never addressed an important question that in reality would sink the entire deception two seconds into Our Hero’s first media appearance: Dave is a dead ringer for Mitchell, yes, but does he sound at all like him? In the musical, Dave realizes that he’ll be forced to alter his voice and does.
Dave’s background in history enhances his “not being comfortable” with this obvious corruption of the Constitution. But could any of us deny the lure of being the Most Powerful Man in the World?
So the totally recovered “Mitchell” makes an in-the-pink return. Here’s where the show showers the audience with confetti. Many musicals have used this kind of explosion to underline the excitement, but they wait until the show’s very end or even after the curtain call. Frankly, even in its first half-hour, DAVE has already earned the right to give us this rousing display.
The film cast a man as Bob’s associate; here she’s Susan Lee (a solid Bryonha Marie Parham) who rationalizes that the deception is “not the worst thing ever done in Washington.” That spurs Bob (Douglas Sills, evil without overdoing it) to agree: “Not even close.”
Will First Lady Ellen Mitchell be fooled? We rather doubt it, given that savvy no-nonsense entrance line she gives. Mamie Parris is a nice foil – industrial-strength aluminum foil, in fact — for the ever-so-worried Dave.
That brings us to Drew Gehling. If this actor were living in London a century ago, Gehling would be able to make a nice living as a quick-change artist. He needs no time at all to make his costume switches from Dave to Bill and back again. Director Tina Landau has also employed some stage wizardry where now-you-see-Mitchell-oh-you-don’t; it rivals the tricks that the current HARRY POTTER plays on the eyes.
Gehling is expert at singing and extraordinary in timing a joke (and he — as well as many others — gets plenty of good ones). The actor is ever-so-snide in the few scenes in which he plays Mitchell; most of the time he’s Dave, and he convincingly makes the man grow from uncertainty to stateliness.
Watch Ellen deal with the photo opps on the arm of the husband she hates. You may well be reminded of how Melania Trump often looks miserable when she’s photographed with her mate.
That’s not the only recent political history that DAVE brings to mind. Mitchell’s tweets have words incorrectly spelled. Bob has a Dick Cheney-like incident while hunting. Such lines as “Washington thinks the rest of us are stupid” and “This is the White House. This is no place for dishonesty” get moans of recognition.
Dane Laffrey’s set is essentially a large drum that splits open to reveal a half-circle — which certainly serves the Oval Office where many scenes are set. (Super-large supertitles always tell us where we are.) The drum is often closed tightly and characters walk in front of it while delivering dialogue, thus returning us to the era of “in-ones,” where lines and lyrics were dispensed in front of a curtain.
Nit-picks? Sure. The Vice President is initially characterized as a glad-hand without a smidgen of gravitas. There’s a number in which DAVE hallucinates on how previous presidents would regard him, and they all show up. At show’s end, Ellen is given a new job that she would never get and doesn’t need to get, given where the plot is going.
Have some pity on songwriters who must write for a villain; such bad guys don’t inherently sing. Composer Tom Kitt and Benjamin do a decent job with their second-act opener for Sills; Landau overdoes it by having chorus members enter and perform as back-up singers. Give credit, though, to her keeping matters moving in splendid fashion.
Kitt’s music reflects old-world Broadway — that’s a compliment — with a generous dollop of patter songs. Such ditties always require deft and delicious lyrics, which is precisely what expert wordsmith Benjamin has given them. The two have also collaborated on “Not Again” for Ellen; despite its name, it’s a lovely ballad.
There is one borrowed song: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung at a ballgame before “the president” throws out the first ball. The melody is barely recognizable, however, because it’s sung in the New Age manner that today’s recording artists like to impose upon it. The audience apparently didn’t mind, for halfway through, it joined in.
The singing of the anthem also demanded that the crowd rise to its feet, which it immediately did. This would not be the only standing ovation that DAVE would get. At a time in history where half the nation would welcome Dave (or Goober Pyle) as its president, this musical allows such citizens the chance to live out their fantasies for a couple of hours and think “Mister, we could use a man like David Kovic again …”
Back in late 1954, Cole Porter’s SILK STOCKINGS began its pre-Broadway tryouts only a matter of months after the McCarthy hearings had been concluded. A nation that had been bombarded with the Communist Scare was rife for a show in which a Soviet official succumbed to a Western businessman. SILK STOCKINGS wasn’t that good a musical, and yet it ran more than a year partly because it told theatergoers what they wanted to hear.
DAVE is also the right show at the right time (and a much better musical to boot). By playing Washington, D.C., it’s also in the right place.
However, wherever it lands in the foreseeable future — are you listening, Broadway? — it’ll be in the right place, too.
Arguably best of all, DAVE debunks that long-held notion that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Let’s change it to “Those who teach can do plenty.”