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Strike Up The Band

"The Music Man" transports audiences back to a simpler time of ice-cream socials, barbershop quartets and wagons.

Set in 1911, the family-friendly musical centers on a fast-talking salesman who cons communities into buying uniforms and musical instruments, then skips town without teaching any students how to play.

"It is the most produced musical in America," said Modesto Performing Arts director and choreographer Paul Tischer, who opens his fourth production of the show on July 15. "It is a classic, all-American show."

Songs include "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Good Night My Someone" and "Till There Was You," which was covered by The Beatles.

MPA's staging will feature elaborate sets, an orchestra and a cast of 60, which includes lots of young people.

"This is about as big as we can get on stage," Tischer said. "I don't think we've had a cast larger than that."

Created by Meredith Wilson, the show is getting added attention these days because it is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Over the next few months, productions are planned in Stockton, Sunnyvale, Bakersfield and Woodland.

MPA's staging will star veteran local actors Curt Denham as the swindler, Professor Harold Hill, and Melissa Esau as his critic, Marian Paroo, a prim librarian.

Denham has been performing in Tischer shows since he was 14, more than 30 years ago. He played a member of the boys band in Tischer's late-1970s production of "The Music Man." Based in Tracy, Denham performs lead roles professionally all over the country and recently joined the Actors' Equity Association.

This is the second time he has played Hill, a role originated by Robert Preston, who starred in both the Broadway and movie versions.

"I'd like to capture his likability," Denham said. "I think everyone needs to like Harold Hill."

Denham sees Hill as basically a good guy who doesn't think he's really hurting anyone when he takes their money. He thinks he's offering them some entertainment, and they won't miss the money anyway.

"I love the show because it's a romp for him," he said. "As fun as it is for the audience to watch, it's fun to do."

A regular on Stockton stages, Esau co-starred with Denham in "The Last Five Years" for the Stanislaus Arts Council's Serenades on Sunday concert series in Modesto in 2005.

"We have good rapport and good chemistry," she said.

Esau was invited to audition by Tischer and is excited to make her debut as Marian Paroo.

"She is very uptight and very stern and she thinks she is better than the other gals in the show," Esau said. "I like the transformation she makes from hard to soft."

Other cast members include Tovi Wayne as Marian's lisping younger brother, Winthrop, Barbara Bogart as her Irish mother, Mrs. Paroo, Don Vance as the mayor, Grace Lieberman as the mayor's wife and Audrey McHale and Isaac Olson as teen sweethearts.

"There's so much variety, there are so many characters that are entertaining," Denham said. "There's always something to watch."

WHAT: "The Music Man"

WHEN: July 15-28

WHERE: Modesto High School auditorium, First and H streets

TICKETS: $14-$22

CALL: 524-9777