News Column

Meet Cabrillo Music Theatre's new four-legged star

July 19, 2013

YellowBrix

July 19--Don't tell the puparazzi, but a star is now snoozing, and perhaps slobbering, at the Sheraton Agoura Hills.

Frankie is a celeb, for sure -- staying at a grand hotel while working, doing the "one name only" thing, always wearing a fur coat, barking at everyone. He even has a Twitter account.

And this little guy is perhaps one of the most loyal, undemanding, adorable actors you'll ever meet.

Frankie the Chihuahua plays Bruiser, companion to sorority girl Elle Woods, in Cabrillo Music Theatre's production of "Legally Blonde," opening tonight in the Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Surely, he deserves some sort of Best in Show award. Frankie has starred in the national touring version of "Legally Blonde" -- the Broadway musical based on Amanda Brown's novel and the 2001 comedy film starring Reese Witherspoon -- for four solid years, logging more performances of the show than any canine or human actor.

Best of all, this talented and hardworking pooch is a dog without a pedigree -- he was rescued at age 10 months old by theatrical animal trainer William Berloni at the Meriden Humane Society in Meriden, Conn.

Berloni's job/mission is both thespian and humanitarian: He trains animals (mainly dogs, but other pets as well) to perform live on stage, and every animal he works with is a rescued animal.

HUMANE CANINE CASTING

The tale of how Berloni ended up in the animal training business will touch the hearts of all dog lovers.

At age 19 he had completed one year of college as an acting major and planned to transfer to New York University in the fall to study with Stella Adler. The summer before NYU he worked at the prestigious Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.

The theater's executive producer told Berloni he would sponsor the budding actor for an Equity card (meaning membership in the Actors' Equity Association union) if he would "find and train a dog for a new show without spending any money."

After visiting pounds and seeing "skinny, shivering" dogs living in terrible conditions, Berloni found the just-right canine at the Connecticut Humane Society. The sad-eyed, unnamed dog wasn't free -- he cost $7. Berloni had $3. So he borrowed $4 from a friend to purchase the dog for Goodspeed's new show -- a musical based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." The dog, of course, was Sandy in what went on to become the original 1977 Broadway production of "Annie."

Berloni, 56, said that although he had no formal education in animal training, he was an only child who grew up on an isolated farm where his "companions until kindergarten were a dog, cat and rabbit. To me, dogs were not things to command, but creatures to work with."

Berloni's attitude served him well as he started training that first Sandy, with no clue how to turn a dog into a stage actor.

"I went back to my experiences," Berloni said. "My dog was never on a leash, because he wanted to be with me; he loved me. Most animal training is about forcing an animal to do something, instead of making it something they want to participate in. I had to make the dog think the theater was his home, with people treating him kindly."

TALENTED MENAGERIE

Berloni lives on a Noah's Ark of a farm in Connecticut, home to 23 dogs (all working or retired stage actors), three horses, two pigs (training for a stage show based on "Green Acres"), a llama, two chickens, a cat and other creatures. Most of the animals can be hired for theater, TV or film work.

Not surprisingly, Berloni has lots of current and former stage Sandys, Totos and Bruisers, and all these roles usually require understudies, so each show needs two trained canines for the same part (for the Cabrillo show, Frankie/Bruiser doesn't have an understudy).

Berloni, speaking to The Star from Rhode Island, where he was working with a "Sandy" dog for a production of "Annie," said he is perhaps "the only theatrical animal trainer, a term I made up," in the stage business. Animal trainers work extensively in TV and film, but theater is an entirely different, er, animal.

In films or on TV, directors have the luxury of doing many takes for animal scenes, and pulling together bits and pieces seamlessly in an editing room. But in live theater, the animal has to get it right the first time -- and do it again and again throughout the show's run. Plus, the animal has to be acclimated to theatrical lights, noisy audiences, loud music and moving set pieces.

Berloni has worked with four-legged actors for more than 30 years. In addition to training the original Sandy, he trained the dogs in the 20th anniversary Broadway revival and the current revival of the musical.

Other Broadway credits include "A Christmas Story: The Musical," "The Wiz," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Camelot," "Frankenstein," "The First," "Alice in Wonderland," "Oliver!," "Anything Goes," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Nick and Nora." He's also done tons of training for off-Broadway productions, regional theaters, national theater tours, ballet companies, and films, TV shows and commercials.

Film credits include, most recently, "Hope Springs" and "Charlie Wilson's War," and Berloni has made numerous appearances as himself on news and talk shows to talk about his theater work and to advocate for animal rescue.

Berloni's also co-written three books: "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars" (with Jim Hanrahan), "Doga: Yoga for Dogs" (with Jennifer Brilliant) and "Sandy: The Autobiography of a Star" (with Allison Thomas).

In 2011, Berloni received a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre award, given each year to "recognize the achievements of individuals and organizations that do not fit into any of the competitive categories" at the Tonys.

SCENE STEALER

Frankie is the second dog trained by Berloni to perform in a Cabrillo production. Oliver the dog played Sandy in Cabrillo's "Annie" two years ago.

Berloni praises Cabrillo for its willingness to pay for a real dog actor, because in the financially beleaguered arts world, necessities like costumes usually get funding priority before pet fees.

He's also impressed with the theater's animal rescue program, in which dogs in need of homes are showcased at Cabrillo performances. The program has fostered many animal adoptions from audience members.

Cabrillo artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld said "Legally Blonde" is "a poppy, fizzy, funny show -- bigger than life. Not to have the dog equal to that would be a real loss."

Frankie delivers his "lines" perfectly in the first scene (Bruiser's barks are crucial to the plot), and is in five other scenes, Berloni said.

Bruiser is such an audience pleaser, Berloni said, that the original Broadway show's director had to cut the number of scenes that Bruiser (played by a different dog, not Frankie) was in because he "kept stealing all the scenes."

POOCH PIONEER

Berloni is busy with other projects on the East Coast, so he won't be at the Cabrillo production. Instead, a handler, Brian Hoffman, who works with Berloni, will be with Frankie onstage (actually, waiting in the wings) and care for him during the show's run.

Berloni's current projects, he said, include a pilot movie for HBO, and a theater production he's particularly proud of -- a 13-year work-in-progress based on Kate DiCamillo's children's novel "Because of Winn-Dixie," a Newbery Honor book.

"Having been a pioneer with animals on stage, I think how famous Sandy became and he was only on stage 11 minutes," Berloni said. "So I was looking for a show with a dog all the time on stage. It's the first play to star a dog, and it's about the human-animal bond. The show will be directed by Tony nominee John Tartaglia ("Avenue Q") and features music by Tony winner Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening"), and a book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. The musical will have its world premiere at Arkansas Repertory Theatre in December (for more information, visit http://www.winndixiethemusical.com).

MUZZLING THE MASSES

Berloni said his dog actors do not come out before or after shows to greet adoring fans, although sometimes a theater will host controlled meet-and-greets -- Frankie, for example, met the public during an in-store event at The Promenade at Westlake in Thousand Oaks on July 6.

"They're like little rock stars," Berloni said. "When we come off the stage floor, people rush the dogs to pet them. Even if it's not a Justin Bieber-type frenzy, if it's a little dog, with just 10 people around, it's very frightening."

Berloni described Frankie as "sweet, and he loves to give kisses. He's not afraid to bark and be loud. But he's our lover boy, and won't bite your ankles."

Wilkenfeld said Frankie is "affectionate, and a real pro. I worry more about the 26 humans in the cast than Frankie."

Legally Blonde

Cabrillo Music Theatre presents the Broadway musical based on Amanda Brown's novel and the MGM film, with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and a book by Heather Hach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. today and July 26, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and July 27, 2 p.m. Sunday and July 28, and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, in the Kavli Theatre at the Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets, $34-$69, are available in person at the box office or through Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit http://www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.

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(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

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