Bill Berloni brings out the animal in Broadway

When Bill Berloni barks, Broadway listens.

Or, to be more accurate, when Berloni’s clients bark. Or meow. Or chirp.

Berloni is the foremost theatrical animal trainer working on the stage today. If you’ve seen an animal on stage in the last 32 years, chances are pretty good Berloni had something to do with it. His very first job was finding a Sandy for Annie, and one of his most recent jobs was providing a bulldog and a Chihuahua for Legally Blonde the Musical, which started life last year at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre before heading to New York.

Berloni has been in the news lately because he has written about his work with animal actors in Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars (The Lyons Press, $16.95).

It’s a wonderful book, full of the kinds of backstage stories that theater fans gobble up. And if you like animals AND theater, there simply is no better book for you.

It’s clear from page one that Berloni is a compassionate, gentle man, and that impression only solidifies as he details his work on the Richard Burton revival of Camelot, Alice in Wonderland, Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver, Madison Square Garden’s The Wizard of Oz, a Susan Stroman dance for the New York City Ballet and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few.

During a recent telephone conversation, Berloni recalled working at the Goodspeed Opera House in the summer of 1976. He was 19 and was on the stage crew. He was promised his Equity card if he would serve as dog trainer for a new show: a musical based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.”

“The operative word then was `cheap.’ There was no money,” Berloni says. “Instead of borrowing or renting a dog, someone said they have cheap dogs at the pound. I had never been at a shelter, and it was utterly depressing. I saw all these creatures in the cages, and they all needed to be profoundly loved. I found one dog that matched the look, but he was going to be put to sleep the next day, and I didn’t have the money to adopt him. I went back to the theater, borrowed the $7 and adopted the dog.”

That was the original Sandy, who sat alongside Andrea McArdle as she warbled “Tomorrow” to the rafters. Berloni and the dog bonded in a big way. But the show was a flop, so when it was over, Berloni and his dog Sandy moved to Greenwich Village, and Berloni began studying with Stella Adler.

Then director Mike Nichols called and said Annie was heading to Broadway.

“By the time the show opened out of town at the Kennedy Center, I was a world-famous animal trainer,” Berloni recalls of the job that literally fell into his lap.

From that period on, Berloni has maintained his promise to himself that whenever possible he will find his animal actors in shelters and make sure they have homes when the production ends.

Audiences (and critics) tend to love seeing animals on stage and react in big ways.

“I’ve always wondered why that is exactly,” Berloni says. “Then it occurred to me: it’s like Method acting when you try to bring reality to the stage. An animal on stage is the ultimate reality, and that brings people to the edge of their seats. The dog is not acting – it’s real. Compare that to the actors trying to be real. Animals are the ultimate Method.”

Berloni’s approach to working with an animal actor in a show is not about tricks. He has a wider view than that.

“It’s all about being part of a team,” Berloni says. “The more you work with other artistic members of the team, the more you see it’s the result that matters, not one’s shining star. It’s about what the author and the director want combined with what the animals are capable of doing. My job is not to make Bruiser (the bulldog in Legally Blonde) do tricks. My job is to make Elle Woods look good. The animals are acting in a play, telling a story. I’ve been popular in Broadway work as a collaborator, not someone doing a dog act.”

A huge part of Berloni’s career has involved touring Broadway shows (he’s done umpteen Annie tours and revivals) and regional productions. His animals never fly cargo on planes. Rather, he outfits vans for comfortable road travel, and each animal has an attentive handler (often Berloni and his wife, Dorothy).

He’s currently preparing yet another Annie tour as well as the Legally Blonde tour and one more Wizard of Oz tour.

Beyond his stage work, Berloni is, not surprisingly, an advocate for animal rights. At his Connecticut home, he has 23 dogs, 10 of which are retired actor dogs. He also says 20 percent of the royalties from his book (which is co-written by his brother-in-law, Jim Hanrahan) will support the Sandy Fund, which Berloni’s wife set up through the Humane Society of New York.

As for future projects, Berloni would like to get more involved in the creative side.

“Some of the shows I’ve worked on have been criticized because the animal steals the show and gets the best reviews,” Berloni says. “So why not create a whole show starring a dog? That’s my hope, to create a musical in which an animal plays a full character, not a minor character or a prop. It’s my secret hope we’ll be able to pull that off.”

Visit William Berloni’s Theatrical Animals Web site here.

Here’s Berloni in a TV intervie alongside Chloe and Chico from Legally Blonde:

Broadway baby Peters can still be a blast

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, Bernadette Peters was in a good mood. Her voice was in great shape (and her shape was in GREAT shape).

In other words, Peters’ “Summer in the City” concert was a triumph.

Last time Peters was in town, she was performing a theatrical concert at the Orpheum Theatre to promote her new Rodgers and Hammerstein album. That 2001 run got scotched by illness (she says Rita Moreno gave her the flu at a Jerry Herman tribute), and she hasn’t been back since.

Friday night, she stood in front of the San Francisco Symphony, with her longtime musical director Marvin Laird at the conductor’s podium (and, quite often, at the piano), and delivered the kind of old-school Broadway razzle dazzle that has made her a beloved musical theater icon.

If you’ve seen Peters in a show, especially a long-running one, you know that she can get tired and bored, and she can let her weariness come through in the performance so that it seems she’s giving it about 50 percent. In her many appearances with the SF Symphony – 1991, 92, 95 and 98 – Peters has been hot and lukewarm. She trotted out a lot of the same songs, jokes and mannerisms, concert after concert.

This time around we saw a much fresher Peters. At 60 she has lost none of her Kewpie Doll looks – That hair! Those curves! – nor has her voice, one of the most bizarre instruments on Broadway, lost any of its appeal. I say her voice is bizarre because it is. The break between chest and head voice comes at a strange place, and her control is not always there. Sometimes the drama in her performance comes from wondering whether she can actually hit the note.

That said, Peters has learned to use her odd voice incredibly well. She has comedy notes and break-your-heart notes. She’s a smart interpreter, and as she has gotten older, she has learned simplicity can be equally as effective as the most involved vocal manipulation. That’s one of the reasons she’s so good at singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who was well represented in Friday’s song selection.

After an orchestral program conducted by Edwin Outwater that featured Broadway composers Sondheim, Bernstein, Gould and Styne (no mention need be made of the attempt to make the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” into orchestral rockabilly), Laird led the orchestra through an overture that plucked out highlights from Peters’ career (Gypsy, Mack and Mable, Sunday in the Park with George).

Peters entered singing a cutesy “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy and then got serious with “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, a song she sings just about better than anyone, and the simple arrangement for piano and cello was stunning.

Aside from a go-nowhere running joke about trying to sell a vacation home in Florida (five bedrooms, six baths, one pool), Peters was charming. She did do her “this is my back” joke when she turned to sip water, but mostly she connected with the adoring audience as she strutted through her vampy “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and then climbed on top of the piano for a hot – truly hot – “Fever.”

She headed back to Rodgers and Hammerstein for “Mr. Snow” from Carousel and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (she says she’s seen the current revival twice and that we should catch it if we can) and then surprised us with a delicate “Shenandoah” that was practically a cappella. A recent gig at L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall forced her to add some Disney to the act: a lovely medley of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

The Sondheim section of the evening started on the Davies grand organ in a riff from Sweeney Todd that turned into a beautiful “Johanna.”

Peters sings “Not a Day Goes By” all the time, but Friday night’s version seemed somehow less acted and more natural, which made the song all the more heartbreaking. Her “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is fun (not as fun as Andrea McArdle’s), but her “With So Little to Be Sure Of” brought weight and drama and beauty (more than the set closer “Being Alive,” which didn’t have quite the oomph it should have).

For an encore, she performed her first composition, “Kramer’s Song,” a lullaby she wrote for her dog and that accompanies her recently published children’s book Broadway Barks. Peters walked into the audience to perform the song, which is truly lovely and emotional and has more than a touch of Sondheim in it.

Of course Peters could have performed more songs from her own shows. She didn’t do anything from Song and Dance or Annie Get Your Gun or anything of note from Gypsy. But it was nice getting a mostly fresh plate of show tunes from such a delightful diva.

Visit Peters’ official site:


Celebrating Strouse with `Possibilities’

San Francisco’s unique musical theater company, 42nd Street Moon, kicks off its 16th season with a celebration of Tony Award-winning Broadway composer Charles Strouse on Monday, June 30: You’ve Got Possibilities: Celebrating the Musicals of the 1960s and an 80th Birthday Salute to Charles Strouse.

Strouse won his Tony Awards for Bye, Bye Birdie in 1960, Applause in 1970 and Annie in 1977. Among his other shows are Golden Boy (a starring vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr.), It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, Rags and Nick and Nora. The composer (who also wrote the theme song for “All in the Family”) will be in attendance.

In addition to commemorating his eighth decade, Strouse is also celebrating the release of his autobiography: Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir. The book and the 42nd Street Moon show are all part of a year-long tribute that includes concerts, revivals and special events around the world.

The 42nd Street Moon show at the Alcazar Theatre includes special guests Nancy Dussault, Andrea McArdle (who got her start in Strouse’s Annie), Linda Posner (credited as Leland Palmer starred in Strouse’s Applause as well as the movie All That Jazz — this marks her first stage appearance since her retirement from show business in 1977), Susan Watson (began her Broadway career in Bye, Bye Birdie), and Klea Blackhurst.

The gala begins at 5:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. Performance follows at 7 p.m. The Alcazar is at 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100 ($75 of which is tax deductible). Call 415-255-8207 or visit

To keep up with everything going on in Charles Strouse’s celebratory 80th year, visit

Here’s a clip from the NY Post’s “Backstage with Michael Riedel” that includes a visit with Strouse:

Cabaret review: Andrea McArdle

Andrea McArdle, famous for being a Broadway belter at age 12, swears she’s going to write a book. “But I need to wait for a few people to go to a happier place,” she says.

I, for one, can’t wait to read the book. If McArdle’s opening-night at the Rrazz Room on Thursday is any indication, that is going to be one entertaining autobiography. But somehow she’s got to make that story sing. Without that voice, we’d only be getting part of the story.

McArdle’s short run (she concludes on Saturday) offers a little slice of heaven for the show tune enthusiast. Oh, hell, it’s pride week so let’s be frank – she’s making the show queens squeal with delight. Squeal, squeal.

Gorgeous at 44, McArdle took the stage in a tailored white pant suit and black tee. If she’s been through the wars – and she really has – she sure doesn’t look it. And her voice, which was compared to Merman in her pre-teens, still has that clarion ring, with a belt to keep the sun coming out for many tomorrows yet to come.

She gave a pretty good indication what this show would be like with her first song, a little tribute to Judy Garland with “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” She dipped into her own Broadway songbook next with “NYC,” a song from her star-making show, Annie. It’s a song she didn’t get to sing in the show, though she can be seen singing a bit of it in the made-for-TV movie version.

One thing that’s immediately apparent about McArdle: she’s an extraordinarily energetic performer, at ease with the crowd and herself. She’s also far from a has-been former kid star. She’s got vitality to spare with a unique voice that can find a smooth ’70s groove on “Superstar” or blast the Broadway drama on “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.

She revs up Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t” and then cools down for a sexy solo take on another Sondheim tune, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” Yes, she sings “Tomorrow,” a song she’s been rattling the rafters with for 28 years now, and on Thursday, she wasn’t going to go for the money notes until her pianist, the one-and-only Seth Rudetsky, intervened and said you can’t just leave the audience hanging. So they backed up and McArdle, who claimed earlier in the show to be suffering from a lengthy afternoon rehearsal, showed us why Annie, one of the last Broadway shows not to use body microphones, didn’t need no stinking amplification.

Having Rudetsky on piano guarantees several things: expert musicianship and an even more expert sense of humor. He added harmony vocals here and there (most notably on “Beauty and the Beast” from the Disney show of the same name, which McArdle starred in), but he also teases stories out of her and adds his own inimitable flair, usually in the form of hilarious facial expressions. In addition, Rudetsky provides back-up when McArdle forgets the words, as she did on “Some People.”

Even when she’s not singing, McArdle is a delight. She tells stories on herself, like spilling M&Ms all over the stage at Les Miserables and getting reported to the union for her carelessness (but the death scene was tremendous!). Some young performer challenges her and she retorts: “Hello, ever been on Broadway before you could vote? I didn’t think so.”

Comparing the experience of being in a happy-perky show like Annie to a depressing show like Les Miz, McArdle swears the death and angst is easier: “Sing, die. Sing, die. Trust me.”

Speaking of Les Miz, McArdle brought her nearly 20-year-old daughter, Alexis Kalehoff, to the stage to sing “On My Own.” Now, it might be cringe-worthy to indulge a mother’s need to share her daughter’s talents with the world. But Kalehoff is a Broadway veteran and, in fact, was in Les Miz as young Cosette at age 7, which beats her mother’s arrival on Broadway by five years. Alexis is, like her mother, a powerhouse singer and even sounds, in certain parts of her voice, like a young McArdle. I wanted the mother-daughter duo to sing together, but alas, we’ll have to wait for that number.

Leaving her audience with “Over the Rainbow,” McArdle could have performed all night and still not quite satisfied the hungry opening-night audience. They lapped up stories about Carol Channing chiding a 20something McArdle for dissing “Tomorrow” (“Poor Leslie[Uggams] is still waiting for a signature song,” Channing said) and little dropped details like the youngest orphan in the London production of Annie happened to be Catherine Zeta-Jones.

It’s all good stuff. As for the rest of it, we’ll just have to read the book.

Andrea McArdle in concert through Saturday, June 28 at the Rrazz Room in the Nikko Hotel, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 (Friday) and $42.50 (Saturday). Call 866-468-3399 or visit for information.

Here’s McArdle performing “Maybe” from Annie on an R Family cruise.

And how here’s Rudetsky deconstructing McArdle’s voice circa Jerry’s Girls in 1984.