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A CurtainUp Review
The Bully Pulpit
For most of the two-hour show Roosevelt is not on the pulpit or making speeches. He is in his Sagamore Hill home, a home that is filled with mementoes of his years as a rancher, hunter, Rough Rider, naturalist and president. The time is 1918, on Roosevelt's 60th birthday. He has been out of office for ten years.
Only occasionally does Roosevelt get behind a railing, upstage between the windows, to make one of his fiery speeches. Most of the time, he jokes, remembers, explains and admonishes. Director Bryan Stevens keeps Smith busy pouring tea, donning Rough Rider cap and safari helmet, brandishing a whip, taking aim with his rifle and shooting a bull's eye.
Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt lived before the era of television or movies. But Smith is certainly everything one expects of the robust and opinionated 26th president whose most famous expression was "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." Most striking, with his pince-nez and walrus mustache, Smith looks so much like Roosevelt it's hard not to gasp as he marches on stage to "set the record straight, face the facts and face the music."
Although Roosevelt admits there are certain parts of his life he'd rather not think about, he is always honest, never apologetic. The Bully Pulpit covers all the major events in Roosevelt's life: from his childhood, when he had to sleep sitting up because of his asthma; to his two wives, Alice who died in childbirth, and Edith, his childhood sweetheart whom he married two years later; and his five children, one of whom (Quentin) he lost when he was killed in World War II, another of whom (Alice) he almost lost through early abandonment and later estrangement.
The play is most interesting when it recounts Roosevelt's adventures as a Rough Rider charging up San Juan Hill, learning to be a rancher out West, or campaigning for a cause or an election. But it is most beguiling when Roosevelt makes his wry comments on the people and events in his life. William McKinley "had the backbone of a chocolate éclair." Woodrow Wilson is "Puddin' head, Wooden head Woodrow Wilson." Franklin Delano Roosevelt is "my 5th cousin from the Hyde Park feather duster side of the family." And on the Panama Canal — i"t is said that I started a revolution in Panama. Panama was always having revolutions every five minutes for fifty years."
Roosevelt offers opinions both political and personal. "Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently. And for the same reasons." "You can never begin to live until you dare to die." "The worst of all fears is the fear of living."
Smith portrays Roosevelt as a man not above telling a corny joke or offering silver dollars to members of the audience who shout out the right answers when he pauses in a recollection. Nor does he let Roosevelt maintain his confident mask without on occasion showing the pain and regrets even the most self-assured and self-righteous of man cannot avoid. The sorrow Roosevelt feels at the death of his "baby boy" is palpable.
Towards the end of the play, Smith recites a list of accomplishments not everyone may be aware of. But The Bully Pulpit is more than informative. It is also entertaining and highly theatrical. In other words, you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this tasty slice of history.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide