Outdoor theatrical productions of any stripe invite a bevy of potential pitfalls. But when the theater is tucked into a 2,500-foot-high mountain just off the Pacific Ocean, it brings an element that not even the most stalwart director can circumvent.
As he helms his 30th consecutive Mountain Play this year with his second stab at The Music Man, director James Dunn knows that all too well. Dunn, who’s wrapping up his legendary Mountain Play run just months before his 80th birthday and one year before the Mountain Play celebrates its centennial, helmed dress rehearsals Sunday at Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre in advance of opening day on Sunday, May 20.
But Mother Nature had another idea.
The beautiful weather of the week prior gave way to a foggy cold, and the members of an orchestra that is instrumental to the show (pun intended) were unable to finger their instruments with much dexterity.
“It got really cold on us and it was freezing up there,” Dunn says. “It was a long hard day on Sunday.”
The task at hand – corralling a largest-ever cast of 55 into a stellar production of a Tony award-winning, critically acclaimed Broadway classic, regardless of the weather – has kept Dunn from spending much time reflecting on his amazing run with the Mountain Play.
“It’s been business as usual,” he says. “Because there has been so much to do, it’s just starting to hit me now that it’s the opening of my last show.”
That final lap has incited a slew of reunions with past cast members. When Dunn announced last September that The Music Man would be his final show with the Mountain Play, his phone was ringing off the hook from longtime collaborators with a clear message: congratulations, and get me a part in The Music Man.
“I had so many people who wanted to be in this show and I tried to get in as many as I could – this is the largest cast we’ve ever had,” Dunn says. “It’s like a reunion. It’s Americana.”
A valentine to small town, U.S.A., Meredith Willson’s The Music Man follows the fast-talking, charismatic traveling salesman Harold Hill as he cons the people of River City, Iowa, into buying musical instruments and uniforms for a marching band he knows will never come to be.
Dunn, a 2002 Milley Award recipient, said he’s thrilled that The Music Man, which he directed on Mount Tam in 1993, is his final Mountain Play show. The show lends itself more than most to being in an outdoor theater, particularly with songs like “76 Trombones” and “Wells Fargo Wagon” that beg for large props. Over the span of his career at Mountain Play, Dunn has become renowned for his ability to present spectacular, large scale musicals with all sorts of props incompatible with an indoor theater, from planes and jeeps to wagons and windmills.
Whether it's because of Dunn's last hurrah, the choice of The Music Man or the eve of the Mountain Play's centennenial next season, Mountain Play officials report that sales up over recent years.
Dunn, who moved from Mill Valley to Larkspur two years ago, says the arduous nature of the Mountain Play compelled him to make this his final season. But he has no interest in full retirement, he says. He says he’ll continue to work with the Ross Valley Players and teach at College of Marin, where he founded the drama department and served as its chairman from 1963 to 2003.
“Thirty years is wonderful and I’ve loved it,” he says. “But everything has its time, and the time has come to move on from the Mountain Play. But I intend to keep doing theater until they carry me out.”
The 411: The Mountain Play’s The Music Man will be performed Sundays through June 17, as well as Saturday June 16. All shows begin at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $40 general admission. Children 3 and under are free. Half-priced tickets for children ages 4 to 13 are on sale online for $15. Cushioned reserved seating is available starting at $56. Go to the Mountain Play’s website for more info.
Here is some additional info from Mountain Play officials:
HOW TO GET THERE: The Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre is located off scenic Highway 1 in Marin County, CA. Patrons are encouraged to carpool, take the FREE shuttle buses from Mill Valley, hike or bike to the venue as parking is limited. For more information and schedules visit the Mountain Play Experience section of the website for directions, tips and detailed explanations.
ENTERTAINMENT: In addition to the headline show, pre-show activities and bands include puppet shows from Fratello Marionettes at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. At 12:30 pm, a rotating cast of youth bands will perform on the stage.
After the show, while attendees wait to board the bus back down the mountain, musical groups like Beachcombers (Barbershop Quartet, May 27, June 10,16 & 17) and San Francisco Gold Quartet (May 20) will perform.
DINING: Patrons are encouraged to pack a picnic and their favorite spirit, enjoy the Dining in the Woods Reserved Seating experience featuring cuisine by Melon’s Catering and Events and wines from Reata Winery or enjoy a variety of delectable foods at the Mountain Play Café, courtesy of Fred Martin Events, Barefoot Wine and Lagunitas Brewing Company.