"It's one of the most spectacular theatrical environments anywhere," says director James Dunn of the 3,000-seat Cushing Memorial Amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpais. "You're surrounded by nature," he describes. "You're on top of this beautiful mountain, with views of the Bay and San Francisco. It's one of the largest stages you'll ever see, big enough to do things they could only dream of doing on Broadway. It's just amazing!"
For three decades, Dunn has worked his annual magic up on Mt. Tam, directing the yearly Mountain Play extravaganza through 29 productions. The grand scale of the outdoor stage has inspired some jaw-dropping moments: horses, a stagecoach and an actual surrey with a fringe on top in Oklahoma; a real minibus filled with hippies careening into the action in Hair; authentic army jeeps and trucks in a production of South Pacific, still remembered fondly for the well-timed flyover of WWII planes that Dunn orchestrated for every performance.
The Mountain Play, which first launched in 1913, will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Sadly, it will mark that milestone without Dunn. After 30 years, he's decided to make this year's production of Meredith Wilson's Music Man his last show on the mountain.
"This will be my 30th consecutive Mountain Play," Dunn acknowledges. "I've loved directing these shows. It's been a wonderful adventure. But everything comes to an end, and I'm just happy to be ending my run with a show as big and fun as The Music Man."
Featuring musical direction by Debra Chambliss and some energetic choreography by Rick Wallace, Dunn's Mountain Play swan song will be a bit of a reunion. In addition to one or two brand new faces, Dunn has assembled a large cast of actors, many who've performed for him several times over the last 30 years.
"I've got a lot of old friends with me on this one," he says. "The Music Man is a perfect show for us. It's about the power of music and the magic of imagination. It shows what a community can do when it comes together to create something wonderful. That's The Music Man—and that's the Mountain Play."
'The Music Man' plays Sundays, May 20–June 17, with one Saturday show on June 16, at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater. Highway 1 on Mt. Tamalpais; parking extremely limited, so hiking, carpooling or taking shuttle recommended. All shows 2pm. $1–-$40. 415.383.1100.