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Mantecans landed roles in Peter Pan
Manteca High graduate Roman Romero (center) starred as Captain James Hook in the YES Companys summer production Peter Pan, which closed a seven-show run at the Gallo Art Center last month. - photo by Photo Contributed

Beyond Captain Hook and his band of sword-wielding pirates, the enchanting mermaids and other contrived evils of Neverland, there was another that haunted Michael Huckaby’s imagination.

Like Peter Pan himself, Huckaby had his own reservations about the story’s grown-ups, particularly its father figure.

“Watching Peter Pan as a kid, I was always afraid of Mr. Darling. He was intimidating,” said Huckaby, a freshman at Modesto Junior College and alumni of the Youth Entertainment Stage (YES) Company.

“So it was pretty funny that I played that role. I got to do something that normally, if I were still a kid, I would have never ever wanted to do.”

Huckaby and the YES Company concluded their seven-show run of the time-old classic Peter Pan last month at the Gallo Art Center. The YES Company operates under the umbrella of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, culling together the Central Valley’s best young thespians.

One thing was clear following casting for Peter Pan in March: Director Melanee Wyatt had tapped a wealth of talent in the Manteca Unified School District.

Joining Huckaby in lead roles were Roman Romero as Captain James Hook and Jacob Vaughan as his here-to-please assistant Smee. 

Huckaby and Romero were members of Manteca High’s recent graduating class and played alongside one another in the school’s rendition of Beauty and the Beast. 

Vaughan is also a veteran of the stage. The recent Sierra High graduate has been involved with YES since he was 9. He and Huckaby were cast in last summer’s Ragtime. Vaughan played the younger brother, a role that may have prepared him to play Hook’s pin cushion.

“Four others got the call-back for Smee,” Huckaby said, “but none of them could hold a candle to Jacob. They were good, but Jacob, right away you knew he was Smee. He plays getting pushed around really well. Him and Roman were so good together.”

Now a freshman at UC Irvine, Romero provided many of the production’s biggest laughs, whether it was cowering in the face of a tick-tocking crocodile or leading an impromptu pirate tango. 

“Roman is so cartoony. The comedy he brings to roles is so amazing,” Huckaby said. “He was so perfect for that role. (For) one, his voice. He was so bad before, but to see how much he’s improved is so amazing. He killed that role.”

Huckaby was just as a brilliant, setting the tone in the musical’s opening act. 

As the father of Wendy, John and Michael, Huckaby was simply darling. With a booming voice and commanding stage presence, the soon-to-be 18-year delivered a riveting performance in his final go-around with the YES Company.

He was all things Mr. Darling —loud and combustible, authoritative yet helpless at times, comedic and sensitive. 

Whether it was tripping over Nana — the children’s doggy caretaker — or taking up residency in her doghouse after being racked by guilt, Huckaby captured the essence of the Peter Pan character that once intimidated him most.

“Of course, there are always nerves when it’s a real show. When you go on stage during a show, there’s a different type of atmosphere. It’s unreal,” said Huckaby, who plans to transfer to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. He’s also currently involved with Stockton Civic Theatre’s production “Chicago,” as part of the ensemble cast.

“It was so amazing to share a story with so many people,” he said of Peter Pan, a first for the YES Company. “It’s something that I love doing. I love making people forget their problems for three hours. They get to dive into a story and we take them on the journey.”

Huckaby was introduced to the YES Company by former classmate Lawrence Turner, also a YES alum. He auditioned for Ragtime not knowing what to expect, and now he leaves YES with a heavy heart.

“It feels like a second family. Everyone is so nice,” he said of the free eight-week program, which incorporated 90 students of all ages from Turlock to Manteca. “It’s more about having a good experience than having a good show.”

Those bonds were tested during rehearsal when protagonist Sam Gerber’s father passed away unexpectedly. Huckaby said Wyatt had excused Gerber from rehearsal to be with family.

Instead, Peter Pan found comfort amongst his “second family.” The 14-year-old didn’t miss a single rehearsal.

“It was amazing to see how much strength he had,” Huckaby added. “To see him get up and do seven shows, it was amazing. It would have taken me a while to get strength like that. It was inspirational.”