Children were a handful even for the vigorous and regimented Teddy Roosevelt. The three scalawag children of the 26th president are the focus of the smart, affable world-premiere family musical “Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major.” The show marks the first collaboration between the Kennedy Center and the White House Historical Association, and in many ways, it is a tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. without the security checkpoints and long lines. Tom Isbell’s script blends fascinating anecdotes about Dolley Madison, the War of 1812 and the origins of the wooden desk in the Oval Office with a crafty treasure hunt complete with clues and ghosts.
Comedian Mark Russell spiffs up chestnuts including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Frere Jacques” and “Yankee Doodle” with waggish lyrics and one-liners that poke fun at politics and presidents in a way that even the littlest constituent can understand. “These are subtle pirates,” observes first daughter Ethel (Jenna Sokolowski). “Like Congress,” quips her elder brother Kermit (Alexander Strain).
The play centers on an evening in the White House in 1905 with Teddy (Paul Morella) and his staff trying to keep the children occupied while the president is in delicate negotiations with the Russian ambassador, Count Cassini (Richard Pelzman). The children come across a copy of “Treasure Island” with a mysterious treasure map hidden inside. Unraveling the clues takes them from the Oval Office and the Lincoln Bedroom to the attic and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington and, finally, to the White House roof. There they find the treasure that was right above their heads all along.
At times, “Teddy Roosevelt” seems like a history lesson, with stretches of exposition that even the seasoned actor Michael J. Bobbit, playing a resourceful aide, cannot completely destarch.
Luckily, the lively musical numbers provide a welcome recess, notably Mr. Bobbit’s cautionary solo, “A Fella Can Learn a Lot if He Listens,” and the robust “Strenuous Life,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Teddy’s credo that exercise and discipline can solve any problem. Mr. Morella plays Teddy with dashing heartiness, and in “The Strenuous Life,” he dances and exercises rings around the younger cast members.
Jennifer Mendenhall, as the frazzled governess Mrs. Duffit, has some delightful moments of deranged physical comedy, especially after she is knocked out cold and becomes a droopily effective marionette under the guidance of Ethel.
The adult actors playing the Roosevelt children are engaging charmers, from Miss Sokolowski’s spunky cowgirl turn as Ethel and Mr. Strain’s tenuous confidence as the worrywart brother Kermit to the endearing Matthew McGloin playing Archie, the youngest sibling. Archie is the butt of many jokes, but Mr. McGloin steals the show in his playful, infinitely inventive portrayal of a child everyone underestimates.
“Teddy Roosevelt” shows us a side of the 26th president we might not know — the family man who deeply loves his children and wants them to face life’s challenges with enthusiasm and inexhaustible curiosity.
WHAT: “Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major” by Tom Isbell; songs by Mark Russell
WHERE: Family Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
WHEN: Saturdays at 1:30, 4 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Through Oct. 28.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS