Sheldon Harnick, the Pulitzer and Tony winning lyricist of “Fiorello!” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” has made a formidable step forward, working as both composer and librettist on “Dragons.” The new tuner, making its debut at Luna Stage in New Jersey, is an engaging musical fable based on a Russian play by Yvgeny Schwarz. Harnick’s melodies are lyrical and often captivating, and his gift for putting words together is still positively sublime.
The storybook tale boasts a beguiling spirit, but the plot peaks far too early, and the musical rambles a while before arriving at the inevitable happy ending. Kirk Mouser plays a wandering minstrel who woos Elsa, the comely village maiden (Cecily Ellis). “Getting involved is what I do,” says the stranger, who vows to slay the fierce three-headed dragon that threatens the safety of the community.
It seems that the dragon (Paul Murphy) takes a winsome village maiden as a sacrificial offering once a year. Harnick’s dry asides find the hero, who just happens to be named Lancelot, admitting to being a distant cousin of the celebrated Camelot knight. It appears they went to “knight school” together.
Once the bullying dragon is destroyed, the musical loses its keen loony thrust, and the second act plummets, given over to the politics of small town government.
The most amusing performance finds Paul Whelihan, as a rubbery-faced Mayor, possessed by every nervous disorder known to man. Never has a cataleptic fit been so amusing. “I Love Power,” best defined as an 11 o’clock number, finds Whelihan offering a soft-shoe tap in the best vaudeville tradition.
Murphy’s dragon is a whimsical bully. Bearing a strong resemblance to Peter Ustinov’s campy Nero in “Quo Vadis,” Murphy bellows and sneers most appropriately. It’s a pity he is slain so early on.
Susan Ancheta is the wise, well-fed house cat who can communicate with our hero and even comes to his rescue to hide a treasure in the oven. She also renders “It Isn’t Fair,” one of the most appealing musical numbers, which comes along very early, and joins Lancelot for a defiant confessional duet, “I Can’t Stand Dragons.”
James Glossman’s spare staging accents the whimsy and the simple fairy-tale texture of the piece. A half-hour slice just might make the play more palatable for young audiences; “Dragons” drags on a bit. Stephen Randoy provides apt and well-disciplined musical accompaniment.
Tech credits are efficiently tidy. Costumes are serviceable but bland. A small, barren open space is occasionally furnished with a stone oven and a well, but it comfortably accommodates a bustling group of villagers and donkey carts, in addition to all three severed heads of the fearsome dragon.