BALTIMORE -- The creators of "Teddy & Alice," the Broadway-bound musical at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, have subtitled their show "An American Musical." Since it is about Teddy Roosevelt and his unconventional daughter, Alice, how could it be anything else?
At a time, however, when the British musical is dominating our stages, I suspect the subtitle is also intended as a reminder that the home team is still capable of delivering the goods. Like those "Made in the U.S.A." television ads, we are being encouraged to buy American. I'm all for patriotism, but as far as "Teddy & Alice" goes, a fondness for red, white and blue may not be enough.
Granted, "Teddy & Alice" is several pegs above "Satchmo," the season's first musical (which was similarly compelled to append "America's Musical Legend" to its title). But several pegs above "Satchmo" does not take you very high. We are still in the realm of the old-fashioned storytelling musical, over which hover the shades of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
At Alice's coming-out party in the White House (yes, the one at which she wore her scandalously blue gown), the guests let down their hair and do the "Leg-O-Mutton," a ragtime-propelled dance devised by choreographer Donald Saddler. But the number is not so much inspired by Alice's devil-may-care attitude -- or even a natural surge in the party-goers' spirits; it is there, you sense, out of deference to the old musical comedy formulas that mandate a big production number midway through Act 1.
All the ingredients of "Teddy & Alice" -- the sentiment, the nostalgic charm, the heartache and the historical tidbits -- are served up in calculated proportions. Teddy (Len Cariou) thunders and roars -- peppering his fulminations with "Bully!," "By Godfrey!" or "Damnation!" But he's really an old softy underneath, not unlike Clarence Day in "Life With Father," to whom he bears a more than coincidental resemblance.
For bedtime amusement, Teddy leads his children through a comic reenactment of his famous assault on San Juan Hill. It makes for a pretty dreadful number, "Charge." But at least you have no doubts where the frolicking -- cute little moppets and all -- is being pitched: directly at the "Sound of Music" family trade. "Teddy & Alice" may yet find a personality of its own, but for the time being, it is a terribly piecemeal affair, draped with bunting.
Its most distinctive asset is the score plucked from the collected works of the March King, John Philip Sousa. It is not uncommon practice to tailor new musicals around old songs (Neil Simon is currently doing as much with a trunkful of Gershwin standards). But it can be tricky business. After all, you can't use "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as a love theme.
Equipped with new lyrics by Hal Hackady, that vigorous march emerges as "Wave the Flag," the rabble-rousing, jingoistic campaign song with which Teddy galvanizes the Republican convention of 1904. Matters aren't quite so simple elsewhere. To make the notes fit the circumstances, composer Richard Kapp has reworked some of Sousa's melodies and used others as a point of departure for new Sousa-like tunes. Granted, there's a lot of gusto and celebratory oom-pah-pah coming over the footlights. But I can't say the words and music don't go their separate ways on occasion. To the familiar, albeit slowed down, strains of Sousa's march "The Thunderer," you have the overly protective Teddy wondering if he should allow Alice to marry and asking himself, "Can I let her go?" It's a little like someone singing "Oh, where is my love?" to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Although the book by Jerome Alden takes passing account of Teddy's political battles, it is mostly concerned with his relationship with Alice and the lingering ghost of her mother, Alice Lee, who died in childbirth. Teddy has long since remarried and Alice (Nancy Hume), now a handsome, headstrong young woman, is itching to wed Rep. Nicholas Longworth. Teddy won't have it.
As Alden sees it, the daughter reminds him too much of the late wife; to let go of Alice is to confront the grief he experienced upon losing Alice Lee, but has never acknowledged. Or something like that. I dare say, psychological complexities are not the show's strong suit, and as Cariou plays Teddy -- somewhere between a barking seal and a zealous scoutmaster -- it's hard to take him too seriously.
Hume doesn't have much natural spontaneity as Alice, although we're constantly being told what an irrepressible cutup she is. She's far better when she gives in to Longworth, who is played by Ron Raines, a strapping singer in the Howard Keel tradition. In Act 2, the lovers join voices in "Nothing to Lose," a soaring duet, and "Teddy & Alice" momentarily makes good on its old-time romantic appeal.
Too often, however, it just looks dated -- an impression in no way alleviated by the unimaginative sets of Robin Wagner, which rely unduly on painted drops to depict the White House and surrounding grounds. John Driver's direction is equally pedestrian. And I hate to say that the engaging Beth Fowler is wasted as Teddy's second wife, Edith. But for the most part, she is simply required to stand around being understanding and dignified. That is a challenge under the circumstances; unfortunately, pulling it off doesn't get you much.
"Teddy & Alice" may want to be the musical equivalent of July 4th. Right now, I fear, it's more like July 2nd.
Teddy & Alice, music by John Philip Sousa, book by Jerome Alden, lyrics by Hal Hackady, adaptations and original music by Richard Kapp. Directed by John Driver. Choreography by Donald Saddler. Sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Tharon Musser. With Len Cariou, Ron Raines, Beth Fowler, Nancy Hume, Michael McCarty, Raymond Thorne, Gordon Stanley. At Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, through Oct. 25