Thousands of actors have graced the stage of the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre over the past 52 years and many of them came with Broadway credentials, but none had the pedigree of Dusty and Nigel, two experienced pros who were trained at the heel of a Tony Award-winner.
Dusty and Nigel are Cairn terriers and will be taking turns starring as Toto in the Lyceum’s season-opening production of “The Wizard of Oz,” which runs from June 7 through 16.
The dogs are among the 40 animal performers that work with acclaimed theatrical animal trainer Bill Berloni. Among Berloni’s most notable pupils are the original Sandy from “Annie,” and Bruiser from the stage version of “Legally Blonde.” Berloni is a pioneer in the field of theatrical animal training and has been teaching animals (and the actors who share the stage with them) the tricks and techniques of performing for the last 36 years.
For the Arrow Rock Lyceum production, Berloni and an assistant will spend many hours working with Andrea Dotto, the actress portraying Dorothy.
“She has got to be as good a trainer as we are by opening night,” Berloni says. “The actor gives all the commands.”
Dusty and Nigel, like all Berloni’s animal performers, were rescued from a shelter, and Berloni is proud that his troupe of performers often inspires members of the audience to go out and adopt shelter dogs. Those animals lucky enough to be plucked from a shelter by Berloni and his wife, Dorothy, end up living well in the couple’s specially designed Connecticut home.
“As crazy as it sounds, they all live in the house with us,” he says. “They live in groups based on their size. They have their space and we have ours.” One of the household groups is the elder animals, who have retired from performing and live out their lives in ease.
Those older performers include Snickers, who was a masterful Toto in her day and still has the itch to perform. “She can be an understudy,” Berloni says. “She could do the show.” Like many of the animals in Berloni’s care, Snickers developed a deep passion for acting. Occasionally the trainer will allow her to appear in scenes where she is carried onto the stage, just to satisfy her craving for the spotlight.
Dusty, 7, and Nigel, 6, who came to Berloni from Chicago’s Cairn Rescue USA, suffer from a problem that affects many an actor: they’re typecast. “When people see a Cairn terrier, they think of Toto,” Berloni says. Other than a short film on Nigel’s resume, both dogs have devoted their canine careers to the role of Toto.
Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre Artistic Director Quin Gresham says he made the decision to employ professional animal actors because, in a production that is filled with fantastical things like flying monkeys and a dancing tin man, the relationship between Dorothy and Toto needs to feel absolutely authentic.
“Toto is her truest, most reliable friend,” Gresham says. “I wanted to make sure people would really believe that relationship.”
In addition to Dusty and Nigel, the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz will feature of cast of 32 and star returning Lyceum favorites Dotto as Dorothy, Dana Snyder as the Cowardly Lion, and Whit Reichert as The Wizard. Tony Mansker, who appeared in the original Broadway cast of “Mary Poppins,” will make his Lyceum debut as the Tin Man. No “Wizard of Oz” cast would be complete without Munchkins, and this cast has 15 of them — all children from mid-Missouri, including eight from Columbia.
The 408-seat theater, located in the National Historic Landmark Village of Arrow Rock, stages professional musical, comedic and dramatic productions throughout the summer and fall.
Gresham says there are plenty of delights in store for audiences this season, including the introduction of a live orchestra that will accompany the first three musicals of the year.