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No con here — MPA show full of talent

As MoBand's summer season draws to a close at Graceada Park, other musicians are picking up trumpets, clarinets and trombones across town.

They are cast members in "The Music Man," a charming, family-friendly production presented by the awardwinning community troupe Modesto Performing Arts at Modesto High School.

Set in 1912, the warmhearted Meredith Willson musical centers on a lovable con man who poses as a band instructor so he can sell instruments and uniforms to small-town residents in Iowa.

The show premièred on Broadway in 1957 and was made into two movies: a 1962 feature film starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones and a 2003 TV movie with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth.

Directed, designed and choreographed by community treasure Paul Tischer, MPA's staging has a professional feel even though the only professional performer in the cast of 60 is the star, Curt Denham.

An Actors' Equity Association member who grew up in Modesto, Denham is a charismatic Harold Hill. His relaxed, devil-may-care manner suggests that he has gotten away with scams many times before and is not at all worried about getting caught.

Though his voice wasn't in top form at Sunday's opening matinee performance (it sounded as though he had a cold), he still hit all the notes in his many solos. He also maintained a breakneck speed in the famed patter song"Trouble."

Best-singing honors go to Melissa Esau, who plays Hill's chief critic and eventual love interest, Marian Paroo. This forceful soprano, who regularly appears in Stockton productions, easily navigates the difficult ballad "My White Knight."

Prim, snobbish and stiff in the beginning, she literally lets her hair down halfway through the musical, showing a more compassionate, tolerant side.

Jacob Bronson, who plays Harold's best friend, Marcellus, is one of the most delightful and funny performers on stage, with his rapid-fire high-pitched manner of speech. He is especially fun to watch when he leads the rambunctious dance "Shipoopi."

Don Vance trips over words for comic effect as Mayor Shinn, and Grace Lieberman performs in a hilariously pretentious modern dance as his wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Attractive teens Audrey McHale (who looks a little like Mandy Moore) and Isaak Olson are lively as lovers Zaneeta and Tommy.

Anyone who saw MPA's "Oliver!" a couple of years ago will be glad to know that the star, Tovi Wayne, plays Winthrop, Marian's lisping younger brother. An even better singer now, he brings the house down with "Gary, Indiana." Barbara Bogart shows off a thick Irish brogue and a vibrant personality as his mother, Mrs. Paroo.

Regrettably, barbershop quartet members Chris Hamby, Phil Fincher, Carl Bengston and Brandon Reeder don't always remain on pitch.

The dancing level is mostly easy to moderate. Except for a few cartwheels and split jumps, most of the moves are no more difficult than marching or tapping toes in time.

Under musical director Darrel Lingenfelter's guidance, the orchestra plays crisply and cleanly, though it sometimes overpowers the weaker soloists.

Gini Vyborney provides eye-catching early-20th-century costumes in every color of the rainbow, while Tischer contributes painted backdrops that appear as if they were taken from a children's book.

Speaking of kids, this is the perfect show to introduce young ones to musical theater. I first saw it at age 10. There is nothing offensive in it, and all the songs are impossibly catchy.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 orlmillegan@modbee.com.

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