Arena’s ‘Dave’ Offers ’90s Nostalgia

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Mamie Parris and Drew Gehling. Photo by Margot Schulman. Courtesy Arena Stage.

Remember that Clintonian-era habit Hollywood had of sprouting an unusual number of popcorn movies based on fictional White House drama? There was “The American President” with Michael Douglas and, one of my personal favorites, “Dave” with Kevin Kline as the commander in chief and Sigourney Weaver as his regal first lady.

Not only did Martin Sheen get to play president in “The West Wing,” he also portrayed Douglas’s chief of staff. Talk about a power grab.

Those thirsty for a little ’90s nostalgia should see the musical version of “Dave,” running through Aug. 19 at Arena Stage.

Arena has the world-premiere production, directed by Tina Landau and written by a trifecta of industry stars: Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan (“Annie”), who passed away last year, Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and Tony Award nominee Nell Benjamin (“Mean Girls”).

Although the musical numbers aren’t exactly Lerner and Loewe quality, the story line will incite warm, Disney-ish feelings about the American presidency in some — while reminding others, rather strikingly, of current events.

Twitter-happy President Bill Mitchell (Drew Gehling) has just been reelected, but his staff and inner circle think he’s a jerk, including his wife, who long ago grew accustomed to his philandering. About the only thing the first couple shares is an occasional stage to keep up appearances.

The real stabilizing force in the White House is Mitchell’s chief of staff, the evil and Machiavellian Bob Alexander (“It’s my White House, baby, mine!”).

When Mitchell suffers a stroke while in flagrante with his mistress, he falls into an interminable coma. Rather than acquiescing to the inept Vice President Gary Nance, Alexander hatches a plan to use a dead-ringer impersonator, Dave Kovic, to “play” the president, while he, Alexander, calls all the shots.

The idea seems to work. The public is blissfully oblivious to the fraud, but the president’s wife, Ellen, is on to something. Confused by her “husband’s” sudden interest in her charity work and being a decent human being, she finally confronts him with: “I’m Ellen Mitchell. Who are you?” She then discovers that she loves the fake president more than the real one, and the two spend most of the second act serenading each other with clichés.

The show ends on a sweet, if rather platitudinous note, with Kovic returning to normal life as a local city council candidate. The former first lady joins his crusade and, along with a group of young idealists, vows to bring dignity and honesty back to politics.

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