Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The story originated as a 1993 movie starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, but bookwriters Thomas Meehan (a three-time Tony Award winner), who died in 2017, and Nell Benjamin, also the lyricist, have updated it to the current era of presidential tweets, White House selfies, and former officials becoming acerbic television commentatorsand women running for high office. Composer Tom Kitt (a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner for Next to Normal) contributes rousing anthems and entertaining character numbers.
Director Tina Landau brings a sharp edge to the modern fable, while choreographer Sam Pinkleton fills the intimate Kreeger Theater stage with complex patterns for a small, energetic ensemble on Dane Laffrey's set, which centers on curved walls that shift position on turntables.
Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling) is a high school history teacher somewhere in the Washington area. He reveres Abraham Lincoln and insists that his students memorize the Gettysburg Address. He also happens to look almost exactly like President Bill Mitchell (Gehling again), which is how the underemployed Dave finds himself in the White House after Mitchell suffers a stroke under circumstances that must be kept out of the news.
Dave understands that impersonating the president is illegal, but Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (deliciously unctuous Douglas Sills) manages to convince him with some sophistry invoking Lincoln's name. However, Dave's toughest assignment is dealing with First Lady Ellen Mitchell (Mamie Parris), who's sick of her husband's duplicity (her first line is "Can't you die from a stroke like other men?") but realizes something about the man has changed.
Gehling convinces as both Dave, the starry-eyed idealist who gets a close look at the realities of politics, and pompous Bill Mitchell, and he and Parris develop a charming chemistry. Sills walks off with his every scene, including a soft shoe number backed by a chorus of Secret Service agents. Other standouts are Bryonha Marie Parham as the White House communications director and Josh Breckenridge as Dave's unflappable body man who answers all questions with "I couldn't say."
The show still can use some tinkering: the scene at a Washington Nationals baseball game doesn't add much, and Dave's nighttime visitation by presidential ghosts runs too long. That said, it's a sweet, optimistic show that takes place in a world where the ultimate moral is, "Your president should be willing to care more about you than about himself."