Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Dragons: World Premiere of New
Just who do the people at Luna Stage in Montclair think they are? While the Broadway musical stage is going through an extended recycling phase (I pray that it is only a phase), Luna Stage is presenting the professional World Premiere of an original new musical with book, music and lyrics by the great Sheldon Harnick. It is based on a 1943 Russian play by Yevgeny Schwartz.
Dragons, which in an earlier version was first produced at Northwestern University, has heretofore only been seen in student productions. This musical may well be too small for Broadway and too large for Off-Broadway. It also may be too gentle for great success in today's frenetic MTV'd world. However, all this is not of concern at this time.
If we are on the same wavelength, you may well prefer to attend this wise, mostly delightful, organically whole new musical to attending patchwork musicals with pop tunes shoehorned in.
Set during the age when Dragons walked the earth, this musical tells the story of a town ruled by a conquering fire breathing dragon. Officially in return for his beneficence (but actually in craven fear), the townsfolk grant him one sacrificial maiden of his choice each year. On the day before Charlemagne's daughter Elsa is to fulfill this role, wandering do-gooder Lancelot happens upon their home. And thus begins our tale.
With talking animals, a cap which provides a cloak of invisibility, and a magic carpet, this may sound like (and, at times, feel like) a children's musical, but this is definitely not the case. There is an abundance of adult invention and wit in the plotting, dialogue and characterizations. There is also complication, density and length which could be daunting for younger children.
Schwartz's 1943 play, originally banned in Russia as being anti-communist, cloaked its political message in the guise of a fable. In Dragons, Harnick has adapted the story so as to place its focus on the value and difficulty of establishing and maintaining democracy. He warns us of the human tendency toward dragonhood when there are no checks and balances to limit power.
Harnick's message is startlingly relevant to today's world situation. However, although the message may be rather explicit at the end, it is largely delivered so entertainingly that it goes down as smoothly and deliciously as vanilla ice cream.
Author Harnick, best known as the lyricist for Fiorello!, She Loves Me, and Fiddler on the Roof, also provides the music. This is the first time that I have encountered composer Harnick's music since he provided delightful music (and lyrics) for satiric songs, such as "The Merry Minuet" ("There's rioting in Africa...") a half century ago. Not surprisingly, his upbeat music for Dragons' comic, satiric lyrics is appropriately delightful. The music for the ballads is sometimes lovely, but it is uneven. One mournful song ("If I Die Young") sounds lugubrious.
Lyricist Harnick is in excellent form. Although his reputation is largely for directness and simplicity, there is much more in his arsenal. This is exemplified by the internal rhyme in the lyrics for "No Profit in That" wherein the townsfolk try to discourage Lancelot from fighting the dragon:
Stop wastin' your time
Unfortunately, there are tedious moments where the book appears attenuated. This may result from the inclusion of unnecessary scenes and songs which impede the pacing of the story.
However, there is a conundrum here in addition to the one at the heart of the fable. Some of the loveliest Harnick impulses may be too delicate for contemporary taste. After the fearful town has refused to provide any aid or comfort to Lancelot, he is surreptitiously approached by a small group which secretly seeks to aid him. Among the tools which they provide him is a cap which will make the wearer invisible. As the first act ends, the lights focus on Lancelot as he puts on the cap and instantly becomes invisible in the blackness. Although it is a beautiful, memorable moment, it makes for a very quiet, tentative feeling first act "curtain."
The entire ensemble is very strong. Particularly fine is Paul Whelihan as the Mayor who is breaking down under the pressure applied by the dragon. He is inspired in a most difficult role requiring the skills of a true clown. His work is so outstanding that it put me in mind of the great Bert Lahr.
The aging three-headed dragon in its three human forms (smarmy benevolent despot, military hero and town friar) is embodied in all its dimensions by the perfectly cast, comedically scary Paul Murphy. When the dragon does battle in his true form, we observe the battle through the eyes of its observers in the fashion employed by Lerner and Loewe in "Ascot Gavotte" (My Fair Lady) and "The Joust" (Camelot).
Kirk Mouser and Cecily Ellis are ardent and quite likeable as Lancelot and Elsa. Ellis beautifully sings "You Could Say that I Miss Him," the work's loveliest ballad. Garth Kravits as Elsa's treacherous suitor and Kenneth Boys as a Tom Aldridge-like Charlemagne are both fine.
Special praise must be reserved for Susan Ancheta as the talking Cat. Doubling as choreographer, she supplies herself with excellent feline movement. Her intensity and charm may have you looking for a cat case in which to take her home.
The delightful ensemble players shine in a considerable number of roles and provide much aural pleasure with their lovely choral and occasional solo efforts.
The unit set by Fred Kinney, which provides action on two levels, is clever, evocative and flexible. Bettina Bierly's lovely, beautifully designed, often elaborate profusion of costumes must surely have been budget breakers.
Director James Glossman has done excellent work in coordinating all of the elements of this large, complicated production. There is a great deal of inventive detail in the performance which is so well integrated into the material that it is difficult to determine where Harnick's script ends and Glossman's invention takes over.
Families seeking a show to see together during the Thanksgiving holiday season could hardly do better. An entire family of four can attend this delightful, intelligent musical for less than the price of one ticket to a Broadway musical and no one will be sitting more than about twelve feet from the stage.
Minor reservations notwithstanding, in its current, quite remarkable production at Luna Stage, Dragons provides a wise, witty and winning two and a half hours of musical theatre.
Dragons continues performances through December 21, 2003 at the Luna Stage Company 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online: www.lunastage.org.
Dragons Book, Music and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; directed by James Glossman. Cast: (in alphabetical order): Susan Ancheta (the Cat); Michael Aquino (ensemble); Nellie Beavers (ensemble); Kenneth Boys (Charlemagne); Cecily Ellis (Elsa); Seleena Harkness (ensemble); Garth Kravits (Henry); Kirk Mouser (Lancelot); Paul Murphy (the Dragon); Catherine Rogers (ensemble); Anita Rundles (ensemble); Jake Speck (ensemble); Paul Whelihan (the Mayor).