Families who take the opportunity to see “The Reluctant Dragon” as it roars onto the Riverside stage are in for an enjoyable time as the production pokes fun at the foibles of human nature with wit reminiscent of Mark Twain. At the same time, they will leave with a life message that seeps in when humor opens their hearts.

“The basic message of the show is that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” said director John Flemming.

As the story opens, the townsfolk of the small country village are dealing with two irritants. The first is the monotonous boredom of living in a town where tourism is nonexistent, and the biggest attraction is someone’s wart that changes color or the motions of a double-jointed resident. The second is a boy (Sam Cook) who hangs out in the town square reading his books—an aggravating waste of time that is alien to their lifestyle. Little do they suspect that the boy’s literary ventures provide a threshold not only to vicarious adventures but also to information that may give a clue to the solution to their collective ennui.

Although the villagers (Keri Durrett, Cody Medley, Olivia Thomas, Sarah Bayliss, Angelina and Elijah Beal, and Brianne Cook) attempt to fan the flames of a rumor that there is a dragon in their midst, their hopes are dimmed when the only scrap of evidence they have is a hearsay eyewitness account that was given 50 years ago. But hope for excitement brightens when the knowledgeable young bibliophile points out that dragons can live as long as 150 years.

Urged to find the dragon, the boy meanders through the countryside and comes across a lair, from which a very reluctant dragon (David Schubert) emerges in response to his calls. The dragon initially feigns bluster, declaring that he doesn’t like little boys and, to exhibit his ferocity, puts his dukes up and does his best boxing moves.

After sharing a bit, the boy returns to town but makes a number of subsequent trips to the lair, and the two begin to become friends. The villagers do not welcome his news that the dragon is not the ferocious beast they have described. Refusing to let go of what they embrace as an exciting threat to their existence, they embellish their fictional accounts of the destruction that the dragon has caused, climaxing with a unified cry to enlist the aid of famed dragon slayer Saint George (Steve Thompson). When their hero arrives, they regale him with increasingly fearsome tales of danger, and he agrees to join the boy in a trek to the dragon’s lair.

Along the way, the boy explains that the dragon is, in fact, a friendly creature. When the three finally meet, they put their heads together to satisfy the townsfolk’s desire of the thrill of witnessing an actual dragon slaying. Their masterful plan of action includes a staged battle. By the time the boy and Saint George return, the villagers are in euphoric state in anticipation of the gladiatorial battle—complete with cheerleading pom poms and posters reading “Go Saint George!” and “Slay the Dragon!” Surrounded by the townsfolk, the contenders engage in battle and, after a series of theatrical poses, Saint George runs his sword “through” the dragon (who wheels around on his way to the ground to reveal to young audience members that, in reality, the sword is held beneath his arm).

With that, a presumedly admonished and repentant dragon stands up once again and—to the villagers’ delight and embrace—announces that the ordeal has allowed him to see the light and that, from that day forward, he would change his ways.

The production is lighthearted and engaging for all and includes plenty of physical humor to appeal to children (such as a hunchback whose hump seems to switch its location and the wiggling gyrations of some villagers). The fast-paced comedy and Sondheim-like musical numbers, sung by the experienced cast members, seem effortless.

“The production also carries a message that you should be true to yourself, no matter what other people say or do,” said Flemming. “The boy could have been discouraged when the townsfolk mocked him, but he never loses his childhood sense of adventure and wonder. Through his character, it also carries a message about the importance of reading. Reading not only provides a foundation for all that children do in school, but it also creates a more imaginative culture. I hope families will enjoy their time together when they see the show and that it will spark interesting conversations between parents and their children.”

Collette Caprara is a local writer and editor.

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