'Annie' Broadway revival stars dog

Lilla Crawford, who will play the role of

Lilla Crawford, who will play the role of Annie, and "Sunny" who will play the role of Sandy, in the new Broadway production of " Annie " directed by James Lapine. Previews begin Oct. 3, 2012 and opening night is Nov. 8, 2012 at the Palace Theatre. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

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The little curly-headed girl is singing and I'm sitting here like I'm supposed to.

"The sun'll come out . . . tomorrow . . . "

The little curly-headed girl is singing, and petting my furry head, and I'm not quite sure which little curly-headed girl it is because they seem to change now and then.

"Just thinkin' about . . . tomorrow . . ."

But if I sit here with my head down I get a treat I get a treat I get a --

" . . . stick out my chin, and grin, and SAAAAAAY,

OHHHHH!!"

Whoa -- NOW I know which little curly-headed girl it is. But she's holding me down -- oh, that's right, stay down and get a treat get a treat get a . . .

Standing backstage at the Palace Theatre, animal trainer Bill Berloni watches two stars of the new Broadway revival of "Annie." He'll be the first to tell you dogs don't have a cognitive thought process -- they don't think like humans do. But he can surmise what happened at a recent preview performance, when newcomer Lilla Crawford (as Annie), age 11, sang the show's most popular tune, and Sunny (a 2-year-old terrier mix playing Sandy) sat beside her, then suddenly twisted round to look at her, roused by that powerhouse belt. (The audience couldn't help but laugh.)

Crawford's understudy had played the previous two performances, Berloni explains, "but she doesn't sing quite like Lilla. I think Sunny realized, 'Oh, you're back. I remember you.' "

No one knows better than Berloni the special bond between an Annie and her Sandy. He's been finding and training Sandys since he was 19, when he rescued from a dog pound and trained the first Sandy for the original 1977 Broadway production.

"An animal had never played a character onstage before," he says. The critters in "Camelot," "Anything Goes," "Gypsy" -- mere props, and producers often cut them to save money. But that can never happen here, he explains.

"You can't do 'Annie' without Sandy."

THE SEARCH FOR SANDY

"Annie: The Musical," created by Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics), and based on the classic comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," tells of a runaway who meets -- and loses -- a stray dog on the streets of Depression-era New York, then winds up in the home of billionaire Oliver Warbucks.

The revival, directed by James Lapine, is in previews now and opens Nov. 8, co-starring Tony winner Katie Finneran as evil orphanage supervisor Miss Hannigan, and Australian star Anthony Warlow as Warbucks. The original production earned seven Tony Awards and ran for 2,377 performances, launching the careers of Andrea McArdle (the first Annie) and Sarah Jessica Parker (Annie No. 3).

And Berloni, then a technical apprentice, who had no training at training animals. His grunt assignment: Find a mutt and teach it to sit, stay, cross the stage -- eight shows a week. Simple. His method, which involves no punishment, only positive reinforcement, proved so successful he's now a leader in the field, training animals for various shows, honored at last year's Tony Awards, and co-author of a memoir, "Broadway Tails."

For the revival, Lapine gave Berloni one guideline: He wanted a Sandy never seen before.

The nationwide hunt began last December, and after weeks scouring pounds, Berloni narrowed it down to two -- Sunny, found at a Houston kill shelter less than 24 hours before she was to be euthanized; and Casey, a gangly terrier from rural Columbia, Tenn., who, mere seconds before her injection in the euthanasia room, leaped from the table into the arms of an attendant. Moved, the staff postponed her kill order.

Lapine preferred Sunny's sad eyes, so she got the part. Casey was named understudy.

GIMME SHELTER

Training shelter dogs is unusual. Berloni admits many colleagues think he's nuts. But a shelter reveals how a dog deals with stress, he explains. If they're handling the barking, noises and smells, chances are they can deal with . . . well, show business.

Unlike many other trainers, Berloni adopts his trainees. He and his wife on their Connecticut farm now live with 26 dogs who "helped pay the mortgage," says Berloni, "so we owe them a life with us."

After training six months, Sunny and Casey moved with an animal handler to a charming two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. They attended orchestra and dance rehearsals, to get used to the sights and sounds of the show. And Berloni taught Crawford subtle commands.

"She was kind of a little, like . . . who are you?" says Crawford, recalling her first meeting with Sunny. "I was, like, 'Oh, we're gonna spend so much time together.' I petted her, and her tail started wagging. Sloooowly. Then it got faster."

Unlike other actors, these two can't fake a friendship onstage.

"Dogs don't act," says Berloni. "What you see is what Sunny's feeling."

A (CANINE) STAR IS BORN

To ensure the dogs like the theater, they're greeted daily by cast and crew. They get the largest dressing room, so they can move about. And the theater has special rules: Audience members with therapy dogs are asked to move them to the back of the house.

"I'm, like, look -- if there were naked ladies backstage, I wouldn't focus on my job," Berloni explains. "If there's a dog in the audience, Sunny's not gonna focus, either. Most people get that."

Crawford, too, keeps her eye out for distractions.

"At first, she was, like -- oh, a person's right there," says Crawford, referring to musical director Todd Ellison, who conducts from the orchestra pit, nearly eye level with Sunny. "Now she's used to it."

"In the song 'Tomorrow,' Annie and the dog come to the edge of the stage and Sunny looks right at me," notes Ellison. "We have our little moment of 'Oh . . . hi,' every night."

If Sunny gets distracted, Crawford must correct her and move forward -- while delivering lines and singing.

"It's not rocket science," Berloni says. "But it is learning how to speak dog."

BEST IN SHOW

Meehan, who wrote the musical's book, is still astounded at Sandy's popularity. And to think the original plan, he admits, was for a guy to play Sandy in a dog suit.

But the Sandy phenomenon isn't merely about seeing a live dog onstage.

"Bill finds dogs that have a certain . . . sadness," says Meehan. Seeing Annie and Sandy find each other, "Well . . . it appeals," he says softly.

We know what goes on onstage isn't real, says Berloni, sitting on a couch in the dogs' apartment. Sunny sits beside him, gnawing a bone.

"But then this animal enters and audience members go . . . ," and Berloni leans forward. "It's a true relationship. It's exciting. And it's one of the most honest performances you'll ever see."

He looks down and pats Sunny's head.

She doesn't look up.

She may be Broadway's next big star, but now there's only one thing on her mind.

Bone bone bone bone bone . . . .

Broadway lends a helping paw

To raise awareness about the plight of stray dogs, Pedigree dog food is hitting Broadway. For every "Annie" ticket sold through Dec. 31, 2013, Pedigree will donate $2 (up to $1 million) to its nonprofit foundation that helps dogs find loving homes.

PBS also gets in on the act with WNET/13's "Annie" education initiative, an interactive website -- thirteen .org/annie -- where kids can play games and learn about the making of a Broadway musical.

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