Q&A: ‘Dave: The Musical’ makes its exciting world premiere at Arena Stage

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Dave' at Arena Stage (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — In 1993, Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver made us laugh with the White House comedy “Dave,” earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (Gary Ross).

Now, you can celebrate the 25th anniversary with the brand-new stage adaptation “Dave: The Musical,” which makes its world premiere at Arena Stage in D.C. from July 18 through Aug. 19.

“It’s a new show, which makes it very exciting,” actor Douglas Sills told WTOP. “We get to do a story that’s set in the world of politics in the [nation’s] capital. … It’s a chance to see a new musical in its birthing process, like watching a planet being born! It’s a very exciting thing to see, 25 people at the top of their game, like a NASA shuttle launch. … There’s nothing like it.”

Adapted by Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde,” “Mean Girls”), Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers”) and Thomas Kitt (“Next to Normal”), the story follows affable temp agency owner Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling), who has an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. president. When the philandering president suffers a stroke and falls into a coma, the White House hopes to avoid a scandal by inserting Dave in the Oval Office, no doubt complicating things with the first lady.

“Our show is very much a fairy tale,” Sills said. “It takes that setting and doesn’t dive into the red and blue of things. It dives into the premise of government and how people relate to one another and what you would do in your fantasy life if you could step in that office. … It’s more of a great love story and a human interest story that takes place in the milieu of politics.”

In rehearsing for the musical, the cast was pleasantly surprised at the popularity of “Dave.”

“A lot of people love ‘Dave’ the movie; I had never seen it and I didn’t know it was nominated for an Oscar either, which is wonderful,” actress Bryonha Marie Parham said. “The movie is very sweet. It’s political. There’s a love story between with him and the first lady. It’s cute.”

Sills, who plays Chief of Staff Bob Alexander, says originator Frank Langella has been curious.

The Frank Langella has been texting, going, ‘What’s it like? Do you like the songs?'” Sills said. “It’s very fun to get a text from Frank. … That would be fun to have him walk on: ‘Hey, Frank, I have to be out for a week. Come do my part.’ He would love it. He would be amazing.”

Parham’s role of communications director was performed by a man (Kevin Dunn) in the film.

“We’ve decided to go a different route,” Parham said. “I love the producers for reflecting what our world is actually like now, having a woman of color play the communications director.”

Of course, the biggest difference from the movie is that “Dave” is now a musical, a process that Benjamin knows well after adapting “Legally Blonde” and “Mean Girls” for the stage.

The never-before-heard songbook includes “Mr. President” when Dave takes office; “A Whole New Man” about Dave wanting to change for the better; “The Last Time I Fake It” about the first lady’s estrangement from her cheating husband; “You’re Not My Problem” by the secret service; and “I’m Gonna Kill That Guy” about the chief of staff’s villainous plot to silence Dave.

“When people think musicals, they think ‘West Side Story,'” Sills said. “It’s not like that. It’s more like the new breed of musicals, ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘Next to Normal,’ ‘Hamilton.’ The music is more integrated rather than scene, scene, scene, music. It’s more easily digested.”

Of course, there are also challenges to putting on a brand-new musical.

“Rehearsing a new musical is really intense,” Sills said. “You know that moment when a race car pulls into the pit, has its tires changed and it looks like chaos? Every day is like that: new pages, new songs, the set becomes something else. … Birthing a new musical is triage.”

The surgeon is director Tina Landau, who’s fresh off Broadway’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“In our business, Tina is thought of as a firebrand,” Sills said. “She developed [a technique] called ‘Viewpoints,’ which is a prep to rehearsing. It brings a cast together and makes a cast feel very spontaneous. … It’s scary but it’s fun. … She’ll say, ‘What are you feeling? Let’s do a physicalizaton of this.’ There aren’t any other directors doing that on Broadway. She’s unique.”

From day one, Landau pulled inspiration from Aaron Sorkin’s TV classic “The West Wing.”

“She said on the first day of rehearsal, ‘My inspiration is the fast-talking scenes in ‘The West Wing’ where they’re walking through the halls and everyone’s firing off lines,'” Parham said. “The musical is going to move from transition to transition. … The set changes are quick and seamless. … You’ll be in the Oval Office, then it’ll wipe and you’ll be in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Will the uniquely Washington setting attract current lawmakers to check it out?

“We’re hoping some political figures come see it actually,” Parham said. “We’d love Obama.”

“We’d love anyone! Mr. Trump, please come,” Sills said. “It is supposedly true that Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton have said that this is one of their favorite movies. They love it.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full chat with the cast of “Dave” below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the cast of 'Dave: The Musical' (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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