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San Francisco by Richard Connema

John Muir is alive and well in
Mountain Days: the John Muir Musical

Also see Richard's review of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Northern California had not had an “historical outdoor epic production” until 2000 when Richard Elliott of the Willows Theatre Company presented The Mountain Play: The John Muir Musical at the Concord Music Pavilion for four performances. A crowd of over 10,000 attended to see the musical life of the noted geologist, botanist, explorer, adventurer, writer, preservationist and political activist John Muir. The production was apropos to the area since Mr. Muir settled in the Contra Costa area and most of his efforts to protect Yosemite and save the glorious Hetch Hetchy Valley from destruction came from his living at his ranch in Martinez. The musical was so successful that the city of Martinez built a special 1,100 seat outside amphitheater on their waterfront to house this spectacle for four weeks every August. Willows Theatre has had the honor of presenting the epic each year since 2000.

I have seen several outdoor historical epic dramas over the years and generally I have found them amateurish and self righteous with local people making an unsuccessful attempt to act. However, The Mountain Play: The John Muir Musical does not fit that category. Mr. Elliott wisely has stayed away from the pompousness of the subject and has presented his audience with an original Broadway style musical. Craig Bohmler, who has written four musicals, including Enter the Guardsman and Gunmetal Blues, has provided an excellent score full of life and humor. The romantic ballads and soul searing songs are very well composed. The lyrics are by Tony nominated Mary Bracken Phillips (Metro), and they fit perfectly with Bohmler's music. Mr. Elliott directs this production, which contains a cast of 80 performers, 28 symphony musicians and a 50 person chorus. There are even three horses that perform admirably in the first act. Everything worked like clockwork on the Sunday evening we saw the show.

Mountain Days tells the passionate, turbulent and memorable life of John Muir with an emphasis on music. The drama tells of Muir’s youth in Scotland and Wisconsin, his 1000 mile walk down the Eastern seaboard, his arrival in San Francisco in 1868, his travels to Yosemite, and his persistent efforts to save the landscape from greedy politicians who would strip this wilderness of their natural beauty.

Mountain Play features two actors playing John Muir. The young Muir is played by the ardent and convincing Jon Marshall, who has an excellent voice and is especially good in the powerful song, “Climb the Mountain.” The older Muir is Lee Strawn, who has a commanding voice and looks like Moses in The Ten Commandments. However, his acting seems to stay in one dimension. Marsha Mercant as Muir's wife is engaging as the strong-willed woman. Her rendition of “Love Is Knowing Where to Go” is beautifully sung. Julian Lopez-Morillas is firm as the autocratic father of John Muir. He also has a very dominating voice.

“San Francisco” and “The Political Waltz” are the big production numbers. I doubt if the song “San Francisco” will ever replace the Jeannette MacDonald song in the film San Francisco, but it has a lovely melody, and the chorus is harmonious in this rendition. “The Political Waltz” is quite charming and somehow reminds me of the waltz melody in 1776, though many of Mr. Bohmler's melodies have a definite Sondheim influence.

The production could stand some editing, especially in the second act where some of the scenes bog down. The political implications of Hetch Hetchy could be clarified. There are some excellent voices from the supporting characters, especially Ron Pickett as Chilwell who is the comedy relief. Richard Adamson is showy as the pushy Teddy Roosevelt. He is particularly outstanding in the song “Bully.”

The set of John Muir consists of a dull brown multi-leveled rock type formation that revolves restlessly. The blocking of the actors could be better, but it is difficult to have 85 people milling and dancing around on an outside stage. The three horses do not make it any easier. The historical pageant is impressive on the whole.

The Mountain Play: the John Muir Musical runs through August 25 at the John Muir Amphitheatre, Waterfront Park, Martinez, and CA. For tickets call 925-798-1300.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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