Trixie makes her first entrance onto the Longacre stage in the arms of Renée Fleming in Joe DiPietro's opera-world comedy Living on Love. Although this is the Broadway debut for the opera star, it is not for Trixie. She appeared last season as Mr. Woofles in Bullets Over Broadway. As Ms. Fleming trills out "Puccini!" (or should that be Poochini?) and Trixie turns her stately head, it is clear we are seeing Trixie in the life she was born to lead.
After an interview with Tony Award-winning trainer, Bill Berloni of William Berloni Theatrical Animals, arrangements were made to meet Trixie and her understudy Rocco, as well as Marco and Mimi, the two corgis starring with Dame Helen Mirren in The Audience. Then a quick call to Dawn Animal Agency set us up with Jack and Jill, who are currently appearing at the Lunt-Funtanne in Finding Neverland. My own four-legged companion, Sgt. Major George Waggs, could not believe I would be rubbing paws with such Broadway celebrities and asked if I would bring him Trixie's autograph. "Don't be silly, Sarge," I replied. "Dogs can't hold pens."
Berloni, whose career began with Sandy in the original production of Annie, currently has a theatrical family of 30 dogs, but Trixie is only one of three in his 37 years as a trainer who has more than one Broadway credit. (Last season saw Roxie, formerly of the Broadway national tour of Legally Blonde in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, and several years ago Barty appeared in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and in Awake and Sing! in back-to-back seasons.) All the dogs he trains are rescues. Even if they are found specifically for a particular show, as was the case with Marco and Mimi for The Audience, they are adopted and given a forever home at Bill's Connecticut farm.
Trixie is a little lady. A very polite, if not somewhat reserved interview. Rocco, eager to please and prove himself, jumps in to describe a typical work day for them, "We eat breakfast, we have three walks, but we don't do any training on a show day, and then we go to the theatre and everyone gives us cookies and everyone loves us." "The theatre is the best place to be," demures Trixie. "It's wonderful."
Marco is very macho and it is clear from the start that he is there to do a job. The photo shoot was in a small room just off stage and while Mimi sat quietly for each picture, Marco tried to escape several times to make his stage cross. "They're like an old married couple because they're not related," Bill says. "He's all bravado, but she's really calling the shots." When the call came from the producers of The Audience, Bill began the search and found Marco and Mimi, who were put into rescue as more senior dogs, he at age ten, and she at eight. "It's toughest on the senior ones. They've only known one life." Fortunately, they had each other, and they soon had the Berloni theatrical family. And a job. "Well, of course, I have to do all the active stuff in the show," Marco tells me. Mimi, with a knowing sigh chimes in, "You go do the active stuff. Dame Helen and I will sit backstage and have tea." The A.R.T. production of Finding Neverland featured an actor in dog costume in the role of Porthos the Dog, but when the show moved to Broadway, producers decided they wanted a real dog. Enter Dawn Animal Agency, three generations of animal talent trainers, and Jack to play the role, with his sister Jill to understudy, in their Broadway debut. Now five years old, Jack and Jill were adopted at just five months by Dawn Animal Agency and Sanctuary, never really expecting to be talent animals. They arrived very small and sickly, but are now happy and robust, and, like all the working animals from Dawn Animal Agency, help support the more than 600 animals adopted to the Sanctuary. Jack has had a starring role in the Febreeze campaign and as the Febreeze dog on an episode of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."
Jill is quite eager for her chance to shine on Broadway, and last week, when Jack had a little pinch in his hip she was overheard whispering, "This is it. This is it." Her handler, Bambi Brook, admits to be a little worried that Jill might push Jack down the stairs. Sibling rivalry is clearly not only a human quirk.
All of these dogs elicit oooh's and aaah's from audiences. The trainers explain that it can be a little difficult to adjust to the thousand of people staring from the crowd. "When I say 'good dog' that means approval," explains Berloni. "Screaming, yelling, clapping, standing up staring at you...not so much." The Berloni dogs visited Mamma Mia! during curtain call to help adjust to the sound, but they are trained to be comfortable with the actors onstage. "If they are more interested in the the affection of the actors than the noise, that's how we overcome that." Sometimes they take a curtain call, sometimes they don't, but if you see them at the stage door, maybe just give them a smile and a "good dog."
Oh, and with an ink pad and a Playbill, Sarge got his pawtograph from Trixie. I think he has a slight crush. Who am I kidding? We all do.