With a little less than a week until opening night, there's still much to do to prepare for the Youth Entertainment Stage Company's "The Wizard of Oz."
Costumes need to be completed, wigs need to be found, last-minute scene changes need to be made. The pressure is on because the company is making its debut at the Gallo Center for the Arts after years of performing in school auditoriums.
"It's a little scary knowing I'm going to be on this stage," said cast member and recent Oakdale High School graduate Dustin Tuggle as he waited to rehearse in the 1,251-seat Rogers Theater. "I've never been on a stage this big. A lot of people will be watching."
The show features one of the biggest casts YES Company has had -- more than 100 students, ages 8 to 19, from all over Stanislaus County. Melanee Wyatt, the group's director, wanted to give as many kids as possible the chance to appear in the state-of-the-art performance venue.
"I've never been good at math, but if you give me 100 people to place on a stage, I can do that," she said. "And I can make sure they can all be seen."
Wyatt is encouraging to all her young charges, complimenting them frequently and offering criticisms in a gentle manner. She
is always hugging the kids and telling them how beautiful they look.
While she gets stressed out from time to time, she reminds herself to always think about the purpose of YES Company: "Our main priority is the children having a positive and safe experience," she said.
Wyatt also wants them to have a professional experience. The show will be accompanied by a 16-piece orchestra featuring adult and student musicians. Sets are by accomplished designer Noble Dinse, who recently retired from teaching theater at California State University, Stanislaus. Cast members and some set pieces will fly with the help of ZFX Flying Effects, which has offices in Huntington Beach, Kentucky and the Netherlands.
Characters and props that will be up in the air include Dorothy as she flies away in a tornado, Glinda the Good Witch and her bubble, the Wicked Witch of the West and her monkeys, and the Wizard's balloon.
The cast and crew also are collaborating with the Gallo Center's highly trained technical staff. Aaron Wall, a 15-year-old sophomore at Enochs High School in Modesto, said he is enjoying assisting the sound director and learning about the arts center's top-notch equipment.
"Everything is so advanced and new," he said. "It's a neat place. It's cool being in one of the hot spots in Modesto where all the cool shows happen."
A little help from an old friend
Aston McCullough, a YES alumnus and 19-year-old senior at Sarah Lawrence College in New York who's majoring in dance and educational psychology, has returned to assist Wyatt with the choreography. He spent last year studying dance at Laban Conservatory in London and hopes to make a career as a choreographer, performer and dance teacher.
He performed with YES from ages 12 to 18 and credits the program with giving him a strong foundation in theater and dance.
"I told (Wyatt) I want to give back to the company that gave so much to me," McCullough said.
He said he has enjoyed the rehearsal process.
"It's quite exciting to be performing on the same stage as the Alvin Ailey Dance Company," he said. "Bernadette Peters will be there the week after we leave."
Because there are so many people in the production, some cast members have a lot of downtime as they wait for their scene to be staged. That has given the chance for many friendship to form.
Alyssa Macy, a 17-year-old senior at Oakdale High, plays part of the Yellow Brick Road (It moves! It sings!) along with Tuggle and Sheerica McKenzie. She said she's met many new people, including fellow Oakdale High students she's never had a chance to speak with before now.
She said the hardest thing about being in the production is the long commute from Oakdale and spending so much time away from her family and boyfriend. Last week, she attended rehearsals almost every day, sometimes up to eight hours a day.
Another challenge for the production is selling enough tickets. To cover the considerable costs of working at the Gallo Center, Wyatt would like to have as close to a sellout as possible. Of the 8,757 tickets available, about 25 percent were presold as of a few days ago, which is fine considering that many people buy tickets on the night of the show.
Upbeat as always, Wyatt is certain everything will work out. She obviously loves what she does, and her enthusiasm is catching.
"How can you not smile when you're staging 20 some small children as Munchkins?" she said. "I take pleasure anytime I'm staging and working with kids."
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2313.