Join me now in an enchanted world where a benevolent leader dwells in a manse painted white. Call this dashing man, with a chiseled profile and lovely singing voice, the president, and the people drawn into his humane, empathetic and thoroughly amiable orbit the citizens of his country — also known as the land of the free and the home of the brave.
His elevation to the nation’s highest office, it seems, belongs strictly in the realm of the imagination. If you want to meet this exotic personage, you will have to do so via the box office of Arena Stage, where actor Drew Gehling is embodying him as the title character, in a musical that’s having its world premiere in Arena’s Kreeger Theater.
“Dave” is the contemporary storybook concoction through which its director, cast, designers and producers are hoping a psychically battered nation might rediscover its buoyant optimism. Based on a 1993 movie comedy starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, about a sweet-tempered presidential impersonator who’s installed in the Oval Office after his sleazier, elected doppelganger falls ill, the show taps into the subliminal yearning for a Capra-esque decency to be our guiding spirit. And what better place for such a musical to take its preliminary bows than in Washington?
The musical, which began performances Friday, is undertaking an inaugural run in the nation’s capital, a city that, thanks to the recent tryout successes here of “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “Mean Girls” — all $1-million-plus-a-week Broadway smashes — can claim cachet now as a minter of hits. Under the direction of Tina Landau, whose shepherding of “SpongeBob SquarePants, the Broadway Musical,” was one of last season’s more exuberant realizations of musical adaptation on Broadway, “Dave” has a healthy chance of achieving a fresh take on conventional storytelling. That the score is by composer Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and lyricist Nell Benjamin (“Mean Girls”) gives the production an extra running start. But as always, the question is: Do all the ingredients mix satisfactorily, or are there sizable lumps?
We are at a stage in the development of the Broadway musical where expenses run so high and the appeal to tourists such an imperative that producers are rummaging with ever more gusto through the archives of proven material as the foundation of new projects. “Dave” might not resound with the heft of that much earlier movie about beating back the cynics in our politics, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but it is remembered fondly by many Americans as a celebration of simple American virtues as they apply, ideally speaking, to the person picked to lead us all.
“‘Dave’ is a fable for our time,” says Lauren Shuler Donner, one of the musical’s producers, as well as a producer of the original Ivan Reitman-directed film. “It’s a way to kind of hope again. Because Dave is Everyman. Dave is us.”
A musical “Dave” had been in discussions for years by Donner and Allison Thomas, another producer with Hollywood connections. They went with the idea to Warner Bros., the movie studio whose theatrical arm also became one of the musical’s producers. The project kicked into high gear in 2014, when, according to Kitt, the talk turned to what might be the best time for the show to debut. Although plans are not yet firm, Broadway is what “Dave” is aiming for, says another producer, Mark Kaufman.
“We developed it before the  election,” Donner says. “We had Obama then, and we wondered if this was a necessary story. And then it was, ‘Gee, if Hillary gets in, what else can we say?’ ”
Donner pauses, and adds: “We have a lot to say now!”
The rancorous presidency of Donald Trump can’t help but seem an antithesis to the tale of “Dave.” In this version, Dave is a history teacher plucked from obscurity, whose belief in the American way casts a spell over a beleaguered White House staff, as well as over a disillusioned first lady, played by Mamie Parris. The show’s creators were not looking, though, to devise a Trump-bashing satire. “We are trying to find a way out of the divisiveness, and I believe that people on all sides are trying this,” Benjamin says.
“Our thought was, how do you fall in love with a president — and not just fall in line behind them?” she adds.
“Dave,” director Landau says of the title character, “reconnects with what it means to be honest and open, both in his political relationships, and his personal ones.”
For an audience to go along, Landau and company had to locate a protean actor who could not only play a man capable of beguiling a nation, but also one who could play the philandering president, Bill Mitchell, he replaces. They’re certain they found their versatile lead in Gehling, a 35-year-old graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s acting program, who revealed a facility for charming audiences in Broadway’s “Waitress,” as the love interest, Dr. Pomatter, for Jessie Mueller’s Jenna.
To portray Dave, Gehling looked for inspiration to other musical-theater characters of pure ideals who are thrust into unlikely situations, like the dewy Candide of the Leonard Bernstein show of that title, based on the Voltaire novel. “You can approach it from a place of wide-eyed honesty, and the idea that a person who has never asked for a job may be head-over-heels better prepared for it than someone who’s worked for it,” he says. “It’s refreshing to see an Everyman take on a role like this.”
“Maybe ‘C’ goes slower and ‘D’ goes faster,” Landau is saying, in a rehearsal room inside Arena’s sprawling Southwest Washington complex. A shorthand vocabulary develops with virtually every new show, especially one as technically complex as “Dave.” Here the letters correspond to two of the four concentric walls, propelled by the actors, that will spin in four sets of circular tracks in the Kreeger Theater floor. The curved pieces of wall consist of vertical panels made of polycarbonate twin wall, a substance on which some of the musical’s hundreds of images will be projected.
“We started off knowing that this piece, as with many movie-to-musical adaptations, needed to move at an incredible clip and to a billion locations,” says set designer Dane Laffrey. “These walls wanted to move the way the movie moved.”
It looks, even in rudimentary form, like a dazzling concept, but also highly complicated. The choreography of the cylindrical pieces, running on tracks set closely to one another, adds a level of manual exertion and need for steady concentration: a few times in practice, actors nearly collided with the rolling set. Peter Nigrini, the musical’s projection designer, says that early on in the show’s visual development, Landau came to him, Laffrey and lighting designer Japhy Weidman with her aesthetic vision: “a lot of research images of election-night TV studios.”
Anyone who has seen a Landau musical — such as “SpongeBob” or “Sycamore Trees,” her 2010 musical by Ricky Ian Gordon at Signature Theatre — knows the landscapes of her productions are sophisticated reflections of the textual. As Nigrini explains the TV studio look: “That was the jumping-off point, in the way those places are strangely anonymous and without substance, made with planes and light. The slipperiness of image was fascinating to us. The thinking was, let’s do what for all the world is written as a 1940s musical, and let’s do it in this hyper-modern environment. That is where we all are jumping off from: how to live in that tension of two styles.”
The circular patterning also betokens a geometry repeated around official Washington: the Oval Office, the Rotunda, the dome of the Jefferson Memorial. As walls are directed into place simultaneously in clockwise and counterclockwise directions, the sense of a city in conspiratorial motion — of a metropolis of wheels within wheels — is conveyed.
And of an ensemble getting a good workout.
“No gym today!” a cast member, Adam J. Levy, calls out.
Landau hopes that “Dave’s” emotional calisthenics touch people the way the show moves her, reminding us in Dave’s affirmative rise of what it means to be an American. “It feels like a reawakening,” she says of the fable of “Dave.” “A reclaiming of patriotism, and a belief in our founding principles.”
Dave, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, book by Benjamin and Thomas Meehan. Directed by Tina Landau. $76-$140. Through Aug. 19 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org or 202-488-3300.