One of the most enduring Christmas icons over the past 40-odd years has been the little drummer boy, that poverty-stricken tyke who had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to perform for a divine audience. Thanks to the 1958 song by Harry Simeone, Henry Onorati and Katharine Davis, this image has graced Christmas cards, holiday decorations and the television screen, even though he never appeared anywhere in the Bible. Now, The Little Drummer Boy makes his stage debut right here in Spokane, thanks to the latest production of the Spokane Theatrical Group.
The play introduces eight-year-old Tanner Gerety in the title role, with Spokane theater veterans Patrick Treadway, Thomas Heppler, Melody Deatherage, David Gigler, Tami Knoel and Terry Sticka among the cast members. Troy Nickerson directs the show, Carol Miyamoto provides musical direction, and the book, music and lyrics were penned by local playwright Matthew Harget, making this a uniquely local production.
The Spokane Theatrical Group has been around since 1997, taking advantage of the abundance of local musical theater talent. Nickerson says he and a group of friends organized with the original purpose of bringing quality summer theater to Spokane. "There's great summer theater in Coeur d'Alene, but here in Spokane things kind of go dark in the summer," he says. After successes with productions like Big River, The Sound of Music, Grease and Oliver, the group decided to tackle the holiday season. Last year's production of A Christmas Carol marked the beginning of what Nickerson hopes will be a long tradition of musical theater for the holidays.
"After last year, I looked on the Internet for other holiday shows, and I just didn't find much," Nickerson says. Fellow STG board member Matt Harget was part of the brainstorming. Their stories differ about where and when the idea of a stage version of The Little Drummer Boy first germinated, but further searches for a script proved fruitless.
Then, like in a scene out of a Hollywood musical, the friends hit upon a solution. Harget remembers asking, "Why don't we just write our own?" Harget, a Spokane County public defender, studied theater and film and worked in the film industry before turning to the legal profession, so he went home to see what he could come up with. "We had the idea of the story," he says, "but I wrote the songs first. I came back with six or seven songs and said, 'Well? What do you think?' " And the creative team was off and running.
The lyrics to the song may have created the
character and the image of a young boy
playing his drum for the child Jesus. But the plot and the rest of the characters all had to be developed to support the one familiar scene from the song. After more than a year of work and seven or eight drafts, the script is in place, except for some minor tweaking as it moves from paper to stage. The story, quite naturally, revolves around a young boy -- named Isaac in this production -- who becomes a witness to the unfolding Nativity story.
"In the story, Isaac gets the drum as a gift from his mother before her death," Nickerson explains. "She tells him that one day he will play his drum for a king, but no one guesses that the king will be a little baby."
In order to place the young boy within the Nativity scene, Harget has written the boy's father as the innkeeper who has no room available for the weary travelers, Mary and Joseph. "That's how Isaac meets Mary," he says. "She talks to him about being without his mother." In another scene, Harget uses a song to delve into the character of Joseph. "I see Joseph having a crisis of faith," he explains. "He has to believe Mary and then be a father to this child."
Harget worked to maintain a balance between the serious Scripture-based aspects of the story and comic moments. Along with the three wise men, he added three female counterparts to the supporting cast. "The comic relief comes from these other characters," he says. "The three wise men are hilarious. I wrote some funny lines for them, but the guys playing them are really very funny, quick-witted guys, so they do some great things with those lines."
Despite the addition of comedy, both
Nickerson and Harget believe that the
Nativity story is the heart of the script. "To me, it's about the birth of Christ, the miracle in the manger," Harget states. "The central message is peace on earth. But I think it's accessible to everyone, whether you're religious or not. It's just a positive message about the human spirit. We wanted to show the whole earth coming together."
To that end, Nickerson says the show incorporates a multi-cultural design, with costumes and set design reflecting African, American Indian, Asian and East Indian elements, thanks to the work of costume designer SaraEllen Hutchison and set designer Kate Vander Wende. "I think it's a universal story," he says. "Even though it's about the birth of Christ, it's everybody's story. It's not just ours. And I think that message is especially necessary right now."
Nickerson has staged a fairly simple production, using just grand piano and drums to support the music on stage, but Harget also praises the work of Music Director Carol Miyamoto. "She is a major, major force in this show," he says. "I wrote the lead sheets -- the melody and chords, but she has done all of the arrangements and the harmonies. I make songs that are cute; she makes songs that are beautiful."