Nate Wright isn’t your typical sixth grader. He’s a self-described genius, holds the record in his school for most detentions (22 and counting!), is an accomplished cartoonist, and just happens to be the drummer for the coolest garage band in the universe, Enslave the Mollusk. And yet, somehow, this rebellious boy – first imagined by author Lincoln Peirce in his widely published comics and books, and most recently adapted and brought to life by Jason Loewith and Chris Youstra in the musical Big Nate at Adventure Theatre – has managed to capture the hearts and minds of kids and adults alike.
Big Nate gives audiences a peek into the world of PS 38, where Nate and his two best friends try to win their school’s Battle of the Bands (while Nate simultaneously tries to woo Jenny away from her boyfriend Artur).
This is a place riddled with terrible teachers (like Coach John, “the world’s least athletic gym teacher...[who] majored in dodgeball and minored in medieval torture,” and Mrs. Godfrey, “the fire-breathing dragon of home room,” as Nate describes them), a place where Nate constantly battles his arch nemesis Gina and tries to win Jenny’s heart, and where, no matter how good his intentions, Nate’s schemes never go as planned. “Nate never gets everything he wants,” explains Loewith, Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director and the former Executive Director of the National New Play Network, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics. “In fact, he frequently fails, which is part of his charm. He’s the unintentional champion.”
Nate’s world is both recognizable and relatable for kids no matter their age, for although Nate has a few more detentions than the average student, he has an innate desire to do the right thing despite his proclivity to fail spectacularly.
“I think that’s the thing that appeals to me the most,” says Adventure Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt, who commissioned Loewith and Youstra to write Big Nate. “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just a little unfiltered. He is adventurous, and the times he gets in trouble may not always be because he’s done something bad, but rather because he’s trying to do something good but it just goes awry. Which is, I think, what a lot of kids go through.”
But Big Nate is more than just a musical for kids. It is an hour long and its target audience is ages four and up, sure, but there is a depth to the story and a sharp and fiercely intelligent humor not commonly seen in theatre for young audiences. “I’ve been trying really hard to create a deeper level of dramaturgy in this piece,” Loewith says. “One is you never always get what you want, compromise happens. You have to live with disappointment and celebrate what you do have. And the other level is to show that [Nate is] victorious when he relies on his creativity, it’s in his drawing and in his music where he actually succeeds.”
This strong dramaturgical foundation, alongside mature humor and a healthy dose of sarcasm, puts Big Nate into a class with Sesame Street and other treasured classics as entertainment that works hard to engage the entirety of its audience. “It’s what made The Muppets so successful,” notes Youstra, who composed the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Big Nate. “For the kids it’s fun puppets, but some of the humor is really sophisticated.”
Loewith and Youstra’s quirky and witty new play is a juxtaposition of sorts, featuring songs like “Even Year-Old Cheez Doodles Are Better Than Love” while being littered with literary allusions. (Nate argues against the merits of Anna Karenina within the first few moments of the play.) “Big Nate is based on comic strips and an episodic story, but Jason has found a way to make it into a real play with real characters and a real situation,” Bobbitt declares. “This is real theatre.” And fun for the whole family, a feat that is far from easy even for a sixth grade Renaissance Man like Big Nate.