(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)
One member of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s cast of Legally Blonde: The Musical has never taken an acting class, danced in a chorus or sung a single note. In fact, before joining the show he had never even been inside a theater.
The actor’s name is Frankie. He’s a Chihuahua.
Frankie plays Bruiser, beloved pet of sorority girl-turned-Harvard Law student Elle Woods in the musical based on the novel by Amanda Brown and hit 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon. The canine thespian was trained by Tony Award-winning Bill Berloni, who has trained animals for stage and screen since 1976 in productions including Annie, The Wizard of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Anything Goes, Oliver! and Camelot. Berloni is also animal director of the new musicalBecause of Winn-Dixie, directed by John Tartaglia with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Neil Benjamin. It will premiere in December at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
Legally Blonde: The Musical, with book by Heather Hach and music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin, ran on Broadway in 2007-2008 and played two national tours. The professional Cabrillo Music Theatre production, opening tonight at the Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, is directed by Tiffany Engen, who performed in the show’s Broadway and national tours.
Frankie has been playing Bruiser since the first national tour, and has logged more performances in the show than any other cast member.
Berloni says his first step in creating a role for an animal onstage is to meet with the show creators and discuss what they want the animal to do. Often, their most ambitious ideas require some compromise, Berloni says, since each behavior the animal is trained to do must be rewarded–and live theater doesn’t provide the luxury of editing.
“In a movie when a dog comes in, jumps on the couch, turns around, picks up the remote and turns on the TV, that’s five shots. It’s strung together and edited to look like one continuous action,” Berloni says. “On stage, having a dog run onstage, jump on the couch, turn around and pick up the remote means that you have to stop after each one of them and reward it, which would be obvious to the audience.”
But that didn’t stop Legally Blonde’s original director, Jerry Mitchell, from requesting that Berloni train his Bruiser to do something an animal had never done onstage before: say lines. Berloni was skeptical at first, to say the least.
“Jerry said, ‘I’ve got this great idea for the opening of the show. The girls are looking for Elle Woods and they can’t find her so Bruiser comes out and tells them where she is!’” Berloni recalls. “And I looked at him and said, ‘Okay. Do you expect a ten-pound Chihuahua to run onstage in front of two thousand people and vocalize, and if the dog doesn’t do it the play ends there because we don’t know where Elle Woods is?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.’”
Mitchell ultimately got what he asked for, and Berloni says the result is “pretty spectacular.” Bruiser has five lines in the opening scene, which are translated to the audience.
Though Bruiser is Elle’s constant companion in the movie and in the show’s earliest workshops he was in every scene, his role gradually decreased. Having a dog onstage in every scene proved to distract too much from the rest of the action.
After Berloni has an idea of the kind of behaviors an animal will need to perform onstage, he embarks on a search to find the right breed with the right temperament. For Bruiser, he needed a Chihuahua with a big personality that could also follow direction.
“I don’t know how familiar you are with Chihuahuas, but they’re either Napoleonic and crazy or shy and timid,” Berloni says. “We needed the Napoleonic complex without the aggression, so [that meant] finding an outgoing, barky, big Chihuahua, but not big enough that being onstage for the rest of the play he’s moving around and being unfocused.”
Berloni found Frankie at the Meriden Humane Society in Meriden, Conn. As with all his animals, Berloni only adopts from animal shelters and only uses animals that enjoy and are suited for the work. “Frankie loves being loved by many people, especially pretty sorority girls, and he’s happy going out and doing a show,” Berloni says.
When he works on movies and television, Berloni stands off-camera with the actors in between him and his animal so he can still give commands. But in theater, although he’s already trained the animal, the actors must be the handlers, giving commands and rewards. Getting the animal and actors to work well together can be difficult, he says.
He estimates that 20 percent of the actors he works with in shows with dogs don’t like dogs or are allergic to them, which in turn makes the show suffer. “If our Elle Woods is not fond of dogs, I turn to the producer and say ‘We have to cut behaviors,’ because why would an animal work for someone who doesn’t like it?” Berloni says. “The less fond they are of dogs, the more treats you will see being given onstage. And even then you’ll see the dog looking offstage to us like, ‘I can’t wait to get to you.’”
Though the actors are trained in what to do if an animal doesn’t perform a behavior as expected, some situations, usually out in the audience, just can’t be predicted. Berloni recalls one performance during Legally Blonde’s run at the Palace Theater on Broadway in which the dog playing Bruiser went straight to the footlights at the front of the stage during his big entrance – a family was eating a bucket of fried chicken in the front row.
On tour, theaters have even started checking audience members’ bags, not looking for bombs, but for dogs. Women emulating Elle Woods have snuck their own small dogs into the theater, who have then barked at Frankie and made him bark back.
Berloni is quick to praise the “animal lovers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre for taking Legally Blonde’s animal work seriously and using his services when other small theatre companies might have decided against it. In return, he says, the audience will see Legally Blondethe way its creators intended. “I think the audience there should know that the producers really care about the product they’re putting out there, even though they’re not the biggest theater in town,” he says.
The Humane Society will also operate a booth at every performance of Legally Blonde for theatergoers interested in animal rescue.
And just how did Berloni train Frankie to bark on cue, anyway?
Berloni laughs, but for the sake of his competitors, it will remain a secret between him and Frankie. “That’s one I’m not giving away,” he says.
Legally Blonde: The Musical, Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks 91362. Opens Friday. Thu. 7:30 pm, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm. Through July 28. Tickets $30-$65. cabrillomusictheatre.com. 805-499-2787.