By Charles Brousse
Right away the omens were encouraging. After a short walk through the forest, my little party of four that included a visitor from rural Pennsylvania emerged into the sunlit bowl of Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mt. Tam. (Yes, it’s true—we press people, performers, staff and other VIP types associated with the show are allowed to park in a nearby unpaved, dusty, abandoned quarry, while others have to find spots along the road, use one of the nice, clean, free buses from Mill Valley or hike up a trail with a spectacular view that begins thousands of feet below. Lucky us.)
As I was saying … we emerged from the forest and there it was: The curving rows of stones painstakingly put in place in the ’30s during the Great Depression by workers whose object was to recreate the atmosphere of the famous amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome. Beyond the imposing set (scenic design by Andrea Bechert, construction by technical director Ken Rowland and his crew and painting by scenic artist Dhyanis Carniglia) was the vast Bay Area vista that has attracted people to this spot each spring for 114 years of community celebrations. The sound clarity of the pre-show singing group of young performers indicated that there would be no problems in that department. The weather was warm, but not too warm, and for those super-sensitive to heat, an overhead hose above much of the seating area sprayed a fine cloud of cooling mist.
A colorfully dressed crowd was assembling. Among them were many family groups whose members ranged from the most senior of seniors to the tiniest newcomers. Lunch baskets were everywhere. Finally, the preliminaries (which included a costume contest won by the only entrant, a vivacious little girl named Ruby, were over.) You could feel the anticipation building.
Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have been disappointed by the main event. In my opinion, this year’s production, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, is one of the best Mountain Plays I have seen since I first started trekking up the mountain in the late ’70s. It excels in every area by which these annual productions are measured: A gripping story that will hold the attention of old and young, even if they have to sit on those very hard rocks for a couple of hours; a beautiful production that propels this classic French fairy tale into vivid life; and, finally, a heartwarming message that there is light as well as darkness in our conflict-ridden world.
To be honest, I hadn’t expected such copious rewards. My experience since former producer par excellence Marilyn Smith shifted the format from an amateur, locally generated, Mill Valley-centered community celebration to high quality, semi-professional presentations of Broadway’s most popular musicals that attracted viewers from all over the Bay Area and beyond, was that shows with expansive settings—Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and the like—were likely to be the most successful in a rustic, open-air stadium with a huge playing area. I didn’t think that Beauty’s intimate love story fit the bill.
As it turns out, I was wrong. The romantic core that traces how group prejudice and unjustified feelings of guilt can be overcome by requited love remains in place, but director Jay Manley and choreographer Nicole Helfer—ably assisted by costumer Michelle Navarre-Huff—and the sheer size of the cast, add an unexpected sense of spectacle. Of course, it helps enormously that the leading characters are so strong. Belle, the village beauty who is considered strange because she loves to read, is played with just the right combination of feistiness and compassion by Chelsea Holifield. Jeff Wiesen is Gaston, her bumbling, testosterone-driven suitor.
The Beast (a former prince who is less beastly than he appears) is given a sympathetic interpretation by Daniel Barrington Rubio. Surrounding him in his castle is a group of followers who are subject to the same spell that the prince fell under when, long ago, he refused to help an old woman who was in dire need of assistance. I don’t have the space to name them here, but their hilarious antics are among the show’s highlights. The corps de ballet is stunning, and a 22-piece orchestra, conducted by David Möschler, holds the whole enterprise together.
With its Disney ties, this is a sentimentalized version of the original fairy tale, but the musical’s message of the need for tolerance and good comes through loud and clear. Can’t argue with that!
NOW PLAYING: Beauty and the Beast runs at 2pm on Sundays through June 18, at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.