August 03, 2008

Sacagawea the musical

Willows Theatre presents "Sacagawea," another theatrical chapter in Western historyOK, maybe we don't know all the details on the 1803 expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest. But the fact is that even historians don't have that much rock-solid information on the trek that not only blazed geographic trails, but social ones as well. It placed a 16-year-old Indian mother at the head of the group, granted a slave a full voting partnership more than a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation, and created some of the most memorable show tunes ever to come out of a 19th century American milestone.

That last one came much later. It's part of "Sacagawea," the musical saga commissioned by the Willows Theatre Company that premieres this weekend in the Alhambra Performing Arts Center in Martinez.

The show is part of the theater company's annual Muir Fest, and the second in what company artistic director Richard Elliott envisions as a series of "the 10 great stories of the opening of the American West."

"Sacagawea" and the first show in the cycle, "John Muir's Mountain Days," are also part of an American tradition of staging grand historical plays, or pageants, that goes back to the 19th century ("Sacagawea" will become an outdoor show next season, when electrical work is completed at the John Muir Amphitheater on the Martinez waterfront). The Muir Fest is one of two such pageants in California—the other is the Ramona Pageant, which bills itself as "the nation's longest running outdoor drama." The play about the early settlers of California has been running annually in Hemet since the '20s. In all, there are 37 such historical pageants running in the United States.

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