IF YOU GO:
Legally Blonde the Musical
What: Stage musical
Where: Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., Hawks Mainstage
When: Friday through Oct. 14; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $40 adults, $24 students
Information: 402-553-0800 or online at omahaplayhouse.org
W.C. Fields famously warned actors to avoid dogs and children, who steal the limelight in any scene they're in.
But sometimes there's just no substitute for man's best friend.
If you've seen the movie version of “Legally Blonde,” you know two dogs are major players in the story of Elle Woods, a California sorority girl who applies for Harvard Law School so she can win back the boyfriend that dumped her.
There's Bruiser, Elle's fashion-plate pet in carefully coordinated outfits. And there's Rufus, the dog that has become a custody issue for Elle's new friend, hairdresser Paulette.
So, when the Omaha Community Playhouse decided to stage the musical version of “Legally Blonde,” which opens Friday, director Carl Beck turned to a tried and true Playhouse friend.
Sandi Hansen of Sandi's K9 Management, just south of Blair, Neb., trains dogs in basic obedience for a living.
“Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to work with animals in the film industry,” Hansen said. “I didn't know anything about theater, but when I read about the dog audition for ‘Annie' (at the Playhouse in 2005), I thought why not give this a shot.”
Her dog won the role of Sandy, and Hansen has become the animal trainer of choice at the Playhouse for shows like “Gypsy” and “Cheaper by the Dozen,” as well as for other theaters. Her dog also appeared in a locally shot movie called “California Dreamin'” in fall 2005, fulfilling her childhood dream.
This time Hansen's 2-year-old papillon, Remy, will play Elle Woods' dog, Bruiser. Newt, a fluffy little Maltese mix belonging to Connie Lee and Paul Schneider, won the role of Rufus. Both are dogs rescued from the Nebraska Humane Society.
“I'm not nervous at all,” said Lee, who is executive assistant to World-Herald publisher Terry Kroeger. “Newt is very people-friendly, and he's not afraid of an audience.”
Hansen expresses equal confidence in how Remy will perform, including appearing in a graduation scene in cap and gown and interacting with an actor in another scene.
“Training someone else's dog from scratch would take too much time,” she said. “I already know Newt. He has the right temperament and attitude to be an onstage dog.”
That includes being well-socialized, at ease around people, experienced around lots of noise and not a stay-at-home dog used to just one environment. And, of course, the mutt has to take direction well.
While Lee and Hansen are cool, calm and collected, “Legally Blonde” director Carl Beck confesses he's nervous as a cat.
“Sandi is extremely confident all is going to go well,” Beck said last week. “And I'm busy calculating alternative plans for if it doesn't.”
He confessed his own dog, who has no boundaries, is one reason.
“Both these show dogs are hilariously cute and funny and great and smart and have great personalities,” Beck said. “But I'm new to it. The last time I worked with an animal, it was a crated chicken in ‘El Grande de Coca-Cola.'”
Leanne Hill Carlson, who plays Elle Woods, said Remy was frightened of her at first, “but he and I have gotten to know each other over the past month. Now at rehearsal he looks for me. He's so sweet and great.”
Carlson, an animal lover who has cats, said it's much easier dealing with Remy than with the antics of her 2-year-old son at home.
“He's a good boy,” she said of Remy. “He doesn't shake or anything. He's so cute, he's just about five pounds and quite the charmer. He's gonna steal the scene from me, that's for sure.”
Now that she's worked in both film and theater, Hansen said, she definitely prefers the stage.
“I like seeing the dog grasp the command, and I like to work with the actors the dog is with to see what they naturally do, then use that as the hand signal for a command,” she said. “To see the chemistry between character and dog happen, that's magic to me.”
She said she gets so focused on working the dog, she doesn't even hear audience reaction, an inevitable “awwww” whenever a pooch first appears.
“The dogs get the same reaction in the rehearsal hall every night,” Beck said. “The minute they're offstage from a scene, the cast members are all about playing with the dog.”
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