James, the Dragon Slayer: Reviews
based on "The Fifty-First Dragon" by Heywood Broun
music, book, lyrics, & orchestration by J. Adrian Verkouteren
(©1971 J. Adrian Verkouteren) excerpts from major songs were recorded live
A Medieval Musical
A musical play by a 20-year-old for boys aged 10 to 17 proves one of the most beguiling stage novelties here in a long time. This is called “James the Dragon Slayer,” and is being played through next Sunday afternoon at St. Albans School and you’ll walk taller for having discovered it.
The setting is a medieval knighthood school for boys, specializing in Damsel-Rescuing, Dalmation (the language, not the animal) and Dragon Slaying. Composer-librettist J. Adrian Verkouteren, a former St. Albans lad now a Harvard sophomore, got his idea from Heywood Broun’s “The Fifty-First Dragon” and preserves a provocative, philosophical point for a non-traditional ending.
James prefers Plato’s Republic to such compulsory sports as jousting but the headmaster decides that, given some confidence, James could become a hero. That he does has nothing to do with false confidence, a sobering lesson.
The tone is sporty, awarely mocking. The tradition sniffing is nicely balanced and the idea of a generation gap is amusingly set by the headmaster and the school’s chaplain.
As composer for his own words, Verkouteren is a cheerful traditionalist, offering a variety of songs, solos, choruses and duets. They find strength in their being set pieces and novelty in being fresh melodies. His notion of an off-beat dragon is delightfully expressed in “Where Is the Flame?” He chuckles at the middle-aged with a soft-shoe number, “Those Days of Yore.” He has a new view for “Over There,” fine choruses throughout, “Everyone’s Welcome Here,” “Dress Him Up Fine” and some funny ideas for “My Girl” and “Waiting for a Letter.”
Under the direction of Ted Walch (with Mark Jaster), 16 St. Albans boys linger on for this vacation reprise of a winter term hit. They’re all admirably frilled, from 10-year-old John Boyer, in the title role, to Eric Zwemer and John Gillis, fine as the headmaster and chaplain. To hear John Koch mutter “no wonder I’m paranoiac” is to be guaranteed chuckles and Chris Gladstone, as an angelic-looking tough guy, is a wonderfully saucy chap indeed. Jim Fenhagen is a charming dragon.
Here is material schools across the land would welcome, original, with-it and wise. Bright TV producers will recognize in it material worth filming.
“James the Dragon Slayer” will be repeated tonight through Saturday at 8, Wednesday and Saturday afternoon at 2 and Sunday afternoon at 3. The auditorium is the Trapier Theater in St. Albans School on the Washington Cathedral grounds. Phone reservations may be made a 244-3635. Small-fry will go for this and so will their elders.
By Richard L. Coe
The Washington Post
June 15, 1971
St. Albans Boys Get ‘A’ in Dragon Slaying
In case your eyes glaze at the thought of another school production of a Broadway musical, there is relief in sight. Get yourself over to St. Albans School where they are presenting a second run of J. Adrian Verkouteren’s original “James the Dragon Slayer,” due to the acclaim it received during its February debut.
They have a winner on their hands. The show has a bright pacing and lively tunes, yet miraculously retains the unique flavor of Heywood Broun’s story “The Fifty-first Dragon,” on which it is based.
St. Albans commissioned the show two years ago from Verkouteren, a former student now majoring in music at Harvard. Their investment paid off handsomely. Verkouteren is an expert hand at writing for the cambiata voice, that narrow margin of notes Mother Nature leaves boys voices when they are in their teens. His inventive score uses a small orchestra with great effectiveness, and provides tunes which spring naturally from young lads.
Set in Medieval days, the plot centers on Fitzwilliam, a prep school specializing in Damsel Rescuing, Jousting, and Dragon Slaying. The updated libretto worries about the ecological balance and courses in Dalmation, “a language that’s going to the dogs.”
The cast of 16 boys, ranging through grades 5 to 12, handle their assignments with ease. At several points, during ensemble numbers like “What’s the Matter with James?” and “Dress Him Up Fine,” they stop the show in real razzle-dazzle style.
Wistful young John Boyer, as James, and his companions romp all over Sally Cunningham’s ingenious single set as though they had always lived there. Love-sick Charlie, played by John Koch, has his own ballad “My Girl” as well as two hilarious letter reading scenes.
Senior boys Eric Zwemer and John Gillis play the Headmaster and Chaplain with suitable dignity until their buck-and-wing “Those Days of Yore,” devised by JoAnn Emmerich, brings down the house. Zwemer’s academic bearing could stand a stronger touch of starch if it is to avoid out-and-out caricature.
James Fenhagen’s scene as the dragon was a triumph of delivery over material. You will long remember how he uses a can of kerosene as mouth spray.
Director Ted Walch holds the lid on things with professional skill, and has valuable assists from David Stevens’ evocative lighting and Wren Cooper’s bright costumes.
The show runs until June 20: evenings at 8 (except Monday); matinees are Saturday and Wendesday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.
By Lawrence Sears
The Evening Star
News of Music
June 12, 1971