Dragon tale teaches children about stereotypes

December 26, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

This isn't your typical musical about aqua-colored dragons who sing, dance and philosophize.

"The Reluctant Dragon" is more of a condensed morality play for children, addressing concepts of prejudice, individuality and integrity with song and wit.

The 60-minute musical will be presented by Toby's Youth Theatre at 11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

The plot revolves around stereotyping and the choices that people -- and even dragons -- must make, despite the relentless pressures of popular opinion.

Set in medieval England, the play opens on the bored people of a nameless town who are looking for ways to turn their sleepy hamlet into a bustling tourist stop.

After one resident vaguely remembers old stories about a ferocious dragon living on the edge of town, the mayor sends an introspective young boy to check out the area.

The Boy stumbles onto The Dragon's cave. But his expectations are changed when The Dragon turns out to be more witty and charming than fierce and fire-breathing.

In fact, the cockney-accented dragon reassures the lad that, "as dragons go, I'm really quite nice."

Conversely, The Dragon, who is expecting The Boy to be mischievous, is surprised to find him likable and literate.

Meanwhile, back at the hamlet, the townspeople convince a visiting knight, St. George, that the beast is dangerous and must be slain.

When the peace-loving Dragon, who often sounds as if he just stepped out of a Noel Coward play, finds out about the impending sword fight, he implores The Boy to talk St. George out of killing him.

"Why, I don't even know the man," The Dragon says. "You take care of it for me. That's a dear."

When St. George sets out in search of The Dragon, he, too, is surprised to find the creature tame and friendly.

The Boy then persuades both to put on a mock battle that's sure to slay them in the aisles. After all, the townspeople are only looking for an exciting night on the town.

The amusing and profound story was written in 1898 by Scottish children's writer Kenneth Grahame, author of the classic "The Wind and the Willows."

Forty years later, "The Reluctant Dragon" was published as a book and, in 1963, awarded the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.

In 1989, Steven C. Anderson, associate artistic director at Players Theatre Columbus in Ohio, adapted the book into a musical.

Geared for pre-kindergarten through elementary school children, the show premiered at Toby's Dinner Theatre in November, playing to visiting schools from the Baltimore-Washington corridor and Eastern Shore in 18 productions over the last two months.

It is produced by Theatrical Arts Productions, a nonprofit production company of the Columbia School of Theatrical Arts under the artistic direction of Toby Orenstein, founder and artistic director of Toby's.

The 3-year-old professional company of adult theater artists selects plays that "communicate educational as well as social values," said Toba Barth, administrator for Theatrical Arts Productions.

"We thought 'The Reluctant Dragon' had wonderful theatrical appeal and values. There are themes of learning not to judge on first impressions -- impressions you might hold about people and things."

This year's productions emphasize the negative prejudices inherent in stereotyping and labeling, Ms. Barth said.

In partnership with the county public schools, the company produced "The Labels Project" in September. The show toured county schools and performed at selected public showings through December.

Next month, the production company will premier "Most Valuable Player," a drama about Jackie Robinson, on Jan. 11. A public performance is scheduled for Feb. 12.

For "The Reluctant Dragon," director Carole Graham Lehan sprinkles the production with fun, contemporary touches. She adds a splash of modern choreography to the dancing; "The Dragon's Song" ends with a 1950s harmony; and the fight scene comes with a play-by-play announcer.

The shows also features an entertaining cast that includes Megan Lawrence, Peter Crews, Dianne Stone and Anya Randall as the townspeople; Vicki Johnson, production manager for Toby's Dinner Theatre and Theatrical Arts Productions, as the Mayor; Jeff Shankle as The Boy; Rick Stohler as the handsome and --ing St. George; and Andrew Cesewski as the suave Dragon.

Because most of the songs are narratives, the only real toe-tapper is the snappy "Stories," sung by the townspeople concocting tales about the "dastardly" Dragon.

But the production's outstanding feature is the 7 1/2 -foot-tall dragon costume on loan from the Kennedy Center in Washington, where it was designed and built.

The top half weighs about 75 pounds and sports a feather pink boa down its chest, glowing pink eyes that blink and a mouth that moves with the help of a hand-held bicycle brake device.

For children with a fondness for colorful beasts who sing and dance, The Dragon in blue will leave them with more than just an exciting night on the town.

Toby's Youth Theatre will present "The Reluctant Dragon" at 11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Tickets are $7.50 and include juice and a cookie; group rates are available. A book and ticket package are also available at Junior Editions in The Mall in Columbia and at Toby's Dinner Theatre.

For reservations, call 730-8311 or (301) 995-1969.

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