Arts & Entertainment: Pet Project: Canine Stars of “Legally Blonde”
By Debra Banerjee
The Scarsdale Inquirer
Jan. 11, 2013
Divas come in all shapes and sizes - and yes - species. Two divas of the canine persuassion, Chico the Chihuahua and Nellie the bulldog, will take the stage this weekend as cast members in Play Group Theatre’s performances of the musical “Legally Blonde”.
The Inquirer met the canine co-stars and their trainer Pat Peavy in their special doggie dressing room at PGT headquarters at 1 N. Broadway in White Plains during a tech week rehearsal. PGT contracted with the trainer of the two dogs who performed in the Broadway production of the musical to appear onstage in its show, which will be performed Jan. 12, 13, 19, 20 and 21.
Chico and Nellie, who play Bruiser and Rufus, are rescue dogs trained by Bill Berloni, who trained the original Sandy for the stage production of “Annie,”as well as hundreds of other animals who have appeared onstage, on TV, in movies and in commercials. Berloni was the subject of the recent documentary, “Finding Sandy,”about finding a new shelter dog for the 35th anniversary production of “Annie.”
“I felt that if we were going to do “Legally Blonde”, we had to be true to the script and use real animals- and that meant working with professionals,” said PGT artistic director Jill Abusch. “Bill’s work is well known so we went to him directly and we are thrilled to have Chico and Nellie as our cast members.”
“Bill Berloni takes rescue dogs and turns them into Broadway stars,” Abusch joked. “The dogs love to perform. They have real diva spirit.”
When the dogs are not working, they live with their handlers or live with Berloni at his farm in Connecticut. Peavy, a former software engineer, went to work for Berloni as an animal handler five years ago. Heís worked on many shows including “Annie” and “The Wizard of Oz” and the national tour of “Legally Blonde.“ Hethoroughly loves his job. “Itís wonderful. So much fun,” he said.
Very calm and relaxed, Peavy remains unruffled when Chico begins frantic barking. “He’s just trying to control the room,” Peavy explained.
When the dogs are not on stage, Peavy is “resting them.” “The show takes a lot of energy,” he said. Peavy has enjoyed working with the teen cast of PGT. “It’s about fun and theater,” he said.
As the character Kyle, the UPS man, Terren Klein, a senior at Edgemont High School, gets to interact with Nellie as Rufus. “It’s overwhelming to work with someone more talented than you are,” he deadpanned.
“Everything involves food,” Klein continued. “Every time you give a command you give a dog treat.” Peavy gives the actors the treat to then give to the dog, enabling the actor to bond with the dog.
The dogs want to rush the treat, Klein said, and Peavy reminds the human co-stars not to let the dogs rush them.
Hannah Matusow, a senior at White Plains High School, who plays leading lady Elle Woods, loves working with Chico.
Although Matusow has a dog at home, “I never had a dog I could carry,” she exclaimed. “Chico is so light, only seven pounds.”
PGT has created a “dog drive,” a fundraising effort in which audience and cast members can contribute dog supplies that will be donated to the New Rochelle Humane Society. Items can be dropped inthe bins in the PGT lobby through Jan. 21.
Dylan Nossel, a senior at Scarsdale High School, who spearheaded a successful shoe drive during a production of “Footloose”, is in charge of the dog drive. “So far itís going well,” he said.
The feel good musical comedy “Legally Blonde” is based on the hit movie about Elle Woods, a frothy college homecoming queen, who, when her boyfriend dumps her and decamps for Harvard Law School, decides to go there herself and win him back.
Former PGT student Rachel Berger, directs this production.
Rehearsal seems pretty calm for tech week as costumes are being fitted and everything is nailed down. “We have an amazing team,” Abusch said. “We’ve been doing this for 18 years, eight shows year. We have a very collaborative staff, and that trickles down the kids. They feel safe, comfortable, and happy here. And the show is really good!”
The dogs are contracted for seven rehearsals. They get their own run-through ahead of the cast “to keep it fresh with the kids,” Abusch explained. The special run-through gives the dogs a chance to warm up and reconnect with the human cast, and vice versa.
Peavy brings the animals to the stage and works with Jordy Kulak of New Rochelle, a junior at Solomon Schechter School, who is playing Margot, part of the Greek chorus. Treats for Chico are hidden inside a candle prop that Kulak holds. Chico, on the pink mat responds to Kulak’s lines of dialogue with quick barks, as if he is responding to Kulak’s questions, then he finally leaps into her arms.
“Was the pace OK?” Kulak asks Peavy after the scene. “Keep it slow,” Peavy answers. “Let him feel how you control the pace. You’re doing great!”
Positive reinforcement works for everyone.