by Andy Knight
Making Nate Great
It begins on a morning like any other, with Nate’s favorite breakfast on the table: pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk and pancakes. (Nate likes pancakes. A lot.) But just as Nate’s about to dig in, the phone rings. It’s Nate’s good friend, Annie, and she’s calling about a case—her painting has been stolen.
Despite his plate of uneaten pancakes, Nate rushes over to Annie’s house. When he arrives, Annie describes her painting—a yellow picture of her dog, Fang—and then recounts its disappearance. It went missing while drying, when Annie left the room to walk her friend Rosamond out. At the time of the robbery, only Fang, Rosamond and Annie’s little brother, Harry, were in the house.
With that last piece of information, Nate has identified his three suspects.
Nate begins his investigation with Fang. But it’s not easy to interrogate a dog, so he searches for clues and observes Fang’s behavior. Could Fang have buried the painting? Or did he…eat it? Fang seems to be hiding something, but in the end, it’s only a squeak toy in the shape of a mouse. Fang is a dead end.
Next, Nate investigates Harry. Like Annie, Harry loves to paint and shows Nate three red paintings (of a clown, a house and a tree), as well as an orange painting of a monster. Nate’s questions for Annie’s little brother go nowhere, though—all Harry wants to talk about is his orange monster. Another dead end.
With only one suspect left, all signs point to Rosamond as the thief. But at Rosamond’s house, Nate gets sidetracked. Rosamond introduces her cats, the Hexes, and points out that one of them, Super Hex, is missing. Nate hasn’t even solved Annie’s case and now he has a second mystery on his hands! On top of that, there’s no way Rosamond’s the culprit. After all, she’s a cat lover—why would she steal a painting of a dog?
So now Nate has two unsolved mysteries and he hasn’t had a single pancake all day! But despite the setbacks, Nate the Great perseveres. And with the help of his friends, a little creative thinking and some (purple) pancakes, he just might crack the case after all.
Nate the Great—the new musical currently receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory—is adapted from Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s children’s book of the same name, first published in 1972. Since then, Sharmat has written more than two dozen titles in the series. The many adventures of the tenacious young detective have entertained generations of young readers, including playwright John Maclay, who adapted the story for the stage with composer Brett Ryback.
“I actually read the books as a child (they were new then) and then read them to my son,” Maclay says. “I just love them and always thought they would make a great family musical. I love the trio of characters (Nate, Annie and Rosamond) at the center of the story. All three characters are such characters. So quirky and fun. I wanted to hear them sing.”
In addition to writing and acting, Maclay is the director of artistic development at First Stage in Milwaukee, Wis., one of the country’s leading children’s theatres. It was at First Stage that Maclay and composer Brett Ryback first collaborated, on Just a Little Critter Musical in 2016. Their successful partnership led them to their current project, Nate the Great, which is an SCR and First Stage co-commission.
Ryback, who’s also an actor with multiple SCR productions under his belt, has written a score that’s certain to delight audiences. “There are two main styles of music in this show,” he says. “There’s Nate’s music, which leans towards jazz and big band—styles that are usually associated with film noir and private-eye stories. And then there’s Annie’s music, which is more colorful, playful and lyrical.” With their lively sound, the musical numbers in Nate the Great energize the already fast-paced and exciting story.
Bringing together the moments of mystery, comedy and musical theatre in Nate the Great presents a big challenge for any director. Luckily, SCR has Kari Hayter at the helm. Hayter makes her SCR debut with Nate the Great, but has a number of credits directing musicals across Southern California. And to help her bring the world of Nate the Great to life, she’s assembled a top-notch creative team and cast. The design team includes Fred Kinney (sets), Kaitlyn Kaufman (costumes), Karyn D. Lawrence (lights) and Jeff Polunas (sound). Together, they’re building the physical world of the play that blends the distinctive color pattern of the 1970s with the bright feel of classic musical theatre. The cast includes Daniel Bellusci and Erika Schindele, both of whom have appeared in SCR Theatre for Young Audiences productions, as well as Luzma Ortiz, Domonique Paton and Xavier Watson, who make their SCR debuts in Nate the Great.
While it’s certain that young audiences will have a blast helping the world’s greatest kid detective and his friends solve the case of the missing painting, they’ll also learn a handful of life lessons along the way, from keeping an open mind to the importance of art in everyday life. And if they pay close attention, they’ll realize that remembering those lessons separate the good detective from the great.