Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2005

Be Our Guest. It’s the signature song of the show – and the anniversary season. Moonlight Stage Productions is trumpeting 25 years of producing ‘musicals under the stars.’ And they’re opening this celebrational summer with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

It all started back in 1981, on a cement slab in a Vista park. As founding artistic director Kathy Brombacher recalls, ““It was just a flat stage, with no back. You could see right through to the trees behind.” The first casts were her pupils at Vista High and SDSU musical theater students. They started with two shows, back to back, over two summer weekends.

There were no gates to keep people out; there weren’t even bathrooms. “Until 1988, we had outhouses,” Brombacher chuckles. The tiered slopes were in Brengle Terrace Park from the outset, but there were no permanent seats till the end of the ‘80s. At first, there was seating for 77. Now, there are 900 stadium-style fixed seats and, adding the grassy areas and picnic seating, the amphitheatre can accommodate more than 2000 theatergoers.

For the first two years, the budget was $10,000. Now it’s $1.3 million for four summer musicals and three indoor winter shows. Support comes from the City of Vista Parks and Recreation Department, for which Brombacher holds the title of Program Manager.

“When we began, I just wanted a musical theater organization in North County, so families could grow up knowing musical theater, and not have to drive to San Diego. At the time, Starlight was the only game in town.”

As the company grew, they felt a name change was in order: from Moonlight Amphitheatre to Moonlight Stage Productions, to reflect the fact that they also had an indoor season, which is celebrating a 10-year anniversary at the Avo Playhouse, an ample, converted movie theater. The indoor offerings are comedies and classics, but the summer fare is exclusively musicals. There were a few seasons where Brombacher presented some edgier work: outstanding productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “”A Little Night Music,” for example. But with the growing conservatism of the county (and the country), those days are gone.

“We live in a conservative community,” Brombacher admits. “The Vista Mayor and City Council have been remarkably supportive. But I make careful choices, because I know my audience; some plays just stretch the bounds of their comfort zone. This year, we’re not trying to push any envelopes. It’s not a very risky season. But it’s a family-friendly one.”

Which brings us to back to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and the rest of the anniversary season, which Brombacher describes as “an affectionate trip into our past.” Beauty is, in fact, the only ‘new’ show on the docket. All the others are being revisited by Moonlight, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s charming operetta, Pirates of Penzance (7/20-31), which Brombacher calls “the roots of musical theater;   The Will Rogers Follies (8/10-21), a Brombacher favorite, first staged in Vista in 1996; and Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (8/31-9/11), which in its 1995 incarnation, starred David Brannen. Now the talented actor/dancer/singer/director returns to Moonlight to direct and choreograph Beauty and the Beast..

“I was thrilled to be trusted with such an important event,” Brannen crowed, “the first show of the 25th anniversary season, and the only show Moonlight’s ever run for three weeks, instead of two.”

The elaborate sets, props and costumes have been rented from the Musical Theatre of Wichita, where the show was produced last summer.

“The costumes are beautiful,” Brannen says. “They rival the originals. I’ll take some liberties with the choreography and staging, but I won’t vary greatly from what people expect. Take the ‘Be Our Guest’ number. People expect to see dancing spoons and plates. There’s plenty of comic relief, special effects and pyrotechnics. But I want to create a sense that it’s really a simple story. About two people who take an emotional journey: a young girl who’s odd and doesn’t fit in, a young man who’s selfish and uncaring. The morals are: ‘Beauty is only skin deep’ and ‘Find the love in your heart before it’s too late.’”

To Brombacher, Belle, the Beauty, is “a role model for every young woman. She saves her father, teaches others to read, uses her wit to make mincemeat of the nasty Gaston, and like the Beast, she changes in her perceptions. In this wonderful story, the true virtue of a loving heart is revealed.”

Simple story or not, this is a big show — with oversized cast (34), orchestra (18) and expectations.

“It offers something for everyone,” says Brannen. “The adults can enjoy the more subtle humor, and the sets and lights and costumes. The kids will enjoy the physical comedy and watching enchanted characters brought to life. But I want them all to cry.” Isn’t that what anniversaries are for?

[Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista’s Brengle Terrace Park, June 22-July 9; 760-724-2110].

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.