Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

“Battledrum” – Music helps the young to identify with the Civil War

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of "Battledrum" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

James Semenc, David Craine and Donzell Lewis the drummers in one of the multiple casts of “Battledrum” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Arguably, in many circumstances the best way to teach children something about the past is to show them. For that reason, various groups at one time or another have created theatrical experiences intended as living educational tools. These can either be taken to schools or – if it is possible – students can be brought to the theater to appreciate two things at once: live theatrical performance, and a greater understanding of whatever historical period, etc., the show is trying to make come alive.

One of the most recent of these is “Battledrum,” by Doug Cooney and Lee Ahlin, the new, original musical running at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Its main purpose is to educate, and in that capacity it has booked an impressive number of daytime performances for classrooms-full of students. The usual lobby posters have been replaced with an extensive historical display of photos and commentary. Even samples of period clothing appear at the end of the hall. Opening it to the general public for evening performances appears to be only a sideline to the show’s main purpose.

The story revolves around an under-discussed aspect of warfare prior to the 20th century: the role of the drummer boy. Drums were used by officers to communicate across long distances, and thus the boys playing them were often seen by the enemy as targets in the same way the radio man would have been in the 20th century.

In this case, the topic is the American Civil War, and we follow three disparate boys who end up as drummers for the same northern company. One has been with the army for some time, moving up to the primary drummer as those above him have been picked off, and is proud of his status as first drummer. One is a boy the company picks off after his farm is destroyed by those troops. He has nowhere else to go, and likes to drum, but his loyalties are complex. The third is an escaped slave absorbed – somewhat problematically – by this company and befriended by the two other boys.

As a play, “Battledrum” is a good introduction to the tensions and risks of war for younger children. The characters are empathetic, and the music – though not particularly memorable – is sung with gusto and commitment. There is a sense of military hierarchy, and the pathos of an absent mother and of a young Southern woman in shock. And there is enough drumming to keep the kids rather envious. It is also short – less than an hour and a half, without an intermission, so the wiggles will be comparatively few. On the adult evenings, at least, members of the local Civil War Roundtable, who study and portray folks from that period, were on hand to give a local angle to that rather distant war. This may be an attempt to add a certain sophistication to what is essentially a live “afterschool special”.

The show has been double-cast, because of all the daytime performances. The night I saw it, Chris Clowers brought a gee-whiz quality to young Rufus, who escapes his burning barn to end up in the friendly hands of his enemy. Patrick Dillon Curry gave a sense of youthful authority to the drummer boy somewhat resentful of Rufus’ presence as his potential replacement. Damone Williams created a very likable, earnestly freedom-seeking young escaped slave ready for the protection and adventure of his new military position. Will Cespedes provided – and provides for all performances – an anchor of command as the friendly but authoritative company captain. The cast was rounded out by other strong players, with smaller or multiple parts, including Kaitlin Cournelle, Mark Ostrander and Tara Bopp.

Director Christian Lebano has put his all into making this play work, and it does give a sense of authenticity (though perhaps the treatment of the slave is a bit on the warm and fuzzy side for even northerners of the era), until the very end, when suddenly all the performers are drummers, doing a really cool routine no captain would ever be a part of. It’s as if nobody really knew how to end it on a historically accurate note.

In any case, the costumes by Elizabeth Nankin are excellent, the setting – though spare – gives an open impression on the tiny SMP stage, and the vitality and pacing of the piece keeps the audience connected. It’s a great way to be introduced, as a child, to what the Civil War was like, even if it is rather the “kinder, gentler” version of events. In any case, it’s great for grade school kids.

What: The West Coast Premiere of “Battledrum” When: Through April 19, 7 p.m. March 21, 22, and 29, April 5, 12, 18 and 19; 10 a.m. April 11; 1 p.m. April 8; 2:30 p.m. March 23 and 30, and April 6 and 13 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (13-21), $12 children Info: (626) 355-4318

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