Theater

'Roosevelt': A History Lesson Kids Can Hum

Alexander Strain as Kermit, top, Matthew McGloin as Archie and Jenna Sokolowski as Ethel take cover in the comic mystery
Alexander Strain as Kermit, top, Matthew McGloin as Archie and Jenna Sokolowski as Ethel take cover in the comic mystery "Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major." (By Carol Pratt -- Kennedy Center)

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

America's 26th president won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, but keeping his adolescent children out of mischief was a more troublesome matter. Or so we're led to believe by "Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major," the adorable new children's musical that romps along at the Kennedy Center Family Theater.

This comic mystery, written by Tom Isbell with songs by satirist Mark Russell, cavorts through U.S. history with the exuberant literacy of "Schoolhouse Rock" and the gentle thrills and sleuthing instincts of "Scooby-Doo."

The musical, set in 1905, centers on three of the president's children: Archie, Ethel and Kermit (Matthew McGloin, Jenna Sokolowski and Alexander Strain) -- well-intentioned young hooligans whose idea of fun is to smuggle a 350-pound pony into the White House elevator. As their father busies himself with the wartime negotiations, the trio discover a mysterious document lodged in an edition of "Treasure Island." It's the first of a series of clues that will lead the siblings around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"Teddy Roosevelt" turns out to be highly edifying entertainment, what with references to the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Lincolns, Rutherford B. Hayes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and the Latinate name of the grizzly bear ( Ursus arctos horribilis ). Fortunately, Isbell seeds the scholarship in an amusing script that offers unsophisticated humor for the young'uns (talk about the bear's "pooper") and a few political jokes for the adults (Roosevelt complains of the Senate: "There are so many crooks in there that when they call the roll, the senators don't know whether to answer 'Present' or 'Not Guilty' ").

Russell's lyrics, set to tunes including "Yankee Doodle" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic," can be a little lame ("Not content to sit upon my duff / I'd choose a life of riding rough," Roosevelt sings, looking back on the Spanish-American War). Still, the songs add gusto that suits this outdoorsy president.

Under Gregg Henry's direction, McGloin, Sokolowski and Strain make an appealing band of rapscallions. They function particularly well as a team, firing off lines with triple-punch timing, and nimbly executing slapstick routines that call for them to crawl beneath furniture or to react with exaggerated terror to uncanny apparitions. The role of Archie has the most personality -- he coins words like "wonderific" -- and McGloin interprets him with goofy charm, looking like a pampered Huck Finn in a sailor suit top and battered straw hat (Debra Kim Sivigny designed the period costumes).

The play's other characters also come to life with bull-moose vigor -- en route to an ending that's a touch anticlimactic. Paul Morella cuts a dashing figure as the president, and Jennifer Mendenhall aces her comic moments as the prim, flummoxed governess, Mrs. Duffit. In smaller roles, Michael J. Bobbitt brings an air of refinement to Roosevelt's valet, and Richard Pelzman is suitably boisterous as the Russian ambassador, Count Cassini.

Set designer Nicholas Vaughan evokes the White House with a few shrewdly chosen set pieces, including a reproduction of the rosewood bed in the Lincoln Bedroom. ("Teddy Roosevelt" was co-commissioned by the White House Historical Association, hence the specificity about rooms and furnishings.)

This elegantly spare, history-based aesthetic is one of the qualities that will make audiences feel they're getting a square deal.

Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major, written by Tom Isbell, with songs by Mark Russell. Directed by Gregg Henry; music direction and orchestration, Deborah Wicks La Puma; choreography, Ilona Kessel; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, William Burns. Approximately 70 minutes. Through Oct. 28 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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