'Wizard of Oz' touring production lets Modesto's YES kids join the show

When the national tour of "The Wizard of Oz" comes to the Gallo Center for the Arts next week, there will be a few local faces up on stage.

In addition to the cast of more than 20 professional actors, the show will feature 10 children from Modesto's Youth Entertainment Stage Company.

The kids, who are ages 9-13, will play Munchkins and the Wicked Witch's slaves.

"It's pretty exciting," said Mara Patino, a Turlock 12-year-old who will be in the show. "Most people never get this opportunity."

The company, Network Presentations, uses local children at every tour stop. Network sends out a DVD and detailed instructions to local directors that they use to prepare the young performers.

Melanee Wyatt, YES Company artistic director, hand-picked the children based on their skill level and how they fit into the production's requirements. The show wanted people under 5 feet tall and 100 pounds.

"There isn't any kind of money or tickets (for the children)," she said. "But even though there isn't any material compensation, the whole process and the opportunity to be on stage with a national touring company is invaluable."

The production is based on the Royal Shakespeare company's staging of the 1939 movie musical. It includes the familiar songs from the film, including "Over the Rainbow," "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" and "If I Only Had a Brain."

YES Company staged the show at the Gallo Center for the Arts in the summer of 2008.

The touring show will be filled with special effects like falling snow, falling poppies and real fireballs thrown by the witch at the scarecrow.

"It's a lot of fun," said Cassie Okenka, who stars as Dorothy. "It's great if you're not used to going to theater because it's something familiar. Everybody knows the movie. It's fun to think of how they're going to do it on stage."

Okenka was one of the 10 finalists on the 2008 MTV reality show "Legally Blonde the Musical: the Search for Elle Woods." While the Ohio resident didn't get the part, she did make business connections that paved the way for her stage career.

She was excited to get the role of Dorothy because she is a longtime fan of "The Wizard of Oz." When the movie appeared on TV, all the TVs in her home would be tuned to that channel. Her father used to quote lines from the movie.

Okenka said she enjoys working with the local children who appear in the show. She and the rest of the cast meet them only six hours before opening night. The kids' enthusiasm gives her inspiration.

"It's fun to remember what it was like when you got started in theater," she said.

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