Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Battledrum’s Drummer Boys Bond Over Battle

L-R: James Simenc, David Crane and Donzell Lewis
Photos by Gina Long
The shining moment in this 70-minute Civil War musical comes in the final scene when the entire cast executes Ameenah Kaplan’s dramatic drum choreography with exciting precision. It’s a thrilling conclusion to an otherwise plodding musical by Doug Cooney (book & lyrics) and Lee Ahlin (music).

Battledrum is the story of three boys whose only option during wartime is to become a drummer in the Union Army. Lead drummer, Jackson (David Crane), has been sold into service by his poor family. Rufus (James Simenc), orphaned when the Northerners burn down his home in Kentucky, is enlisted as second-drummer-on-reserve by Captain Wilkes (Will Cespedes), much to the chagrin of Jackson, a smug, self-satisfied young man who is secretly scared to death.

Neither boy has much respect for the other but time and circumstances eventually help the two find common ground, with a little input from third-drummer-on-reserve, George Washington (Donzell Lewis), a runaway slave lost from the Underground Railroad. Though Washington won’t “fight another man’s battle,” when the Captain learns he can read and write, he is promptly signed up. As they advance to the final skirmish, each young man must overcome his fears and summon the courage to survive.

In theory, it is a terrific subject. The historical aspect of the Civil War drummer boys hasn’t been explored until now and they are a fascinating part of our history. Many were only children when they were recruited to serve as the communication system between officers and their troops on the battlefield. Unfortunately, because of their important role, they also became a moving target, with many young boys ending up dead far too soon.

Such a story would seem to be a sure-fire winner, but opening night’s early curtain (7pm) seemed to catch everyone off guard, including the staff, causing a delay of more than twenty minutes before the cast finally took the stage. By that time, energy was flagging and resulted in missed entrances and sluggish pacing that only served to highlight the lack of urgency in Cooney’s book and Christian Lebano’s direction. Only in the final few minutes does the plot advance into more dangerous territory and tension start to build, but by then it’s almost too late to feel the fire this war musical attempts to capture.

Not that it isn’t without charm. Crane has some nice comic moments during “Everybody Hates the Drummer Boy” and when Simenc finally stops brooding he reaches a deeper emotional layer the story so desperately needs. Cespedes’s Captain Wilkes is strong yet fatherly toward the boys and Alexandra Wright’s haunting portrayal of the mentally fragile Annabelle is one of the most wonderfully unpredictable scenes in Cooney’s otherwise prosaic book.

Musically, the show needs a richer sound to carry it through the emotional changes. Solo piano accompaniment from backstage creates little atmospheric color and provides only minimal support to singers whose abilities are not always up to the task.

Scenic designer John Vertrees’ makes an impact with side-by-side Stars & Stripes and Confederate distressed flags hovering over the stage and a rural set that makes good use of its small space. Elizabeth Nankin’s historical uniforms and bedraggled Southern Belle gown add a sobering level of authenticity to the period design.

L-R: Will Cespedes, Donzell Lewis, James Simenc and David Crane

Left: James Simenc and Tara Bopp
Right: Alexandra Wright and David Crane 

L-R: Will Cespedes and David Crane

Battledrum is double-cast: At this performance (The “Gettysburg” cast): Joseph Ahern, David Crane, Will Cespedes, DJ Harner, Donzell Lewis, James Simenc and Alexandra Wright.

The “Vicksburg” cast includes Tara Bopp, Will Cespedes, Chris Clower, Kaitlin Cournelle, Patrick Curry, Mark Ostrander and Damone Williams. 


March 7 - April 19,  2014
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024
Tickets: (626) 355-4318 or

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