It’s one thing to have a dog star in movie; it’s another thing in a live stage musical. But that’s where Bill Berloni comes in, overseeing animal direction for many shows, including The Goodspeed’s new summer offering “Because of Winn Dixie.”
The story’s new-ish musical, with music by Duncan Sheik and book/lyrics by Nell Benjamin, did have two previous productions in Delaware and Alabama, but Goodspeed’s well-earned rep as a musicals’ mecca could propel it further. The tender tale based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo will run Friday, June 28, through Sunday, Sept. 1, at the theater on the river in East Haddam.
Berloni trains the show’s title character —whose real name is Bowdie. But handling Bowdie on a daily basis for the run of the show will be actor/handler Brian Michael Hoffman, a character actor with not only the gift of gab but a way with canines. He’s worked with Berloni for almost 20 years.
“As an actor, you’re always looking for that side hustle ... waiting tables or temping between acting jobs,” said Hoffman. “And ... so Bill has become my day job instead of temping or waiting tables.”
Berloni had shied away from using actors as handlers, worried that it took such time and effort to train animals (he uses rescue dogs), said Hoffman, noting that “he didn’t want to start rescuing actors, too. ...” Hoffman stepped in years ago when the handler on a tour of “Annie” was having trouble getting to far-flung engagements on time. So he began helping drive the animals’ van and even keeping the animals in his hotel room.
It led one day to a morning TV interview at a local station (in which Hoffman excelled) and he was elevated as main handler on the tour. Many such shows followed. (“I started getting calls from theaters as an actor and a handler,” said Hoffman.) And despite the danger of a dog paying attention to that character actor on stage instead of the star, it works for a tour when Hoffman does double duty.
“The price of it is picking a lot of dog poop up, but their resumes are better than mine so I will clean up after them,” Hoffman jokes of his side job.
The Winn-Dixie story is best known as a 2005 movie that was pleasant but only modestly successful. A preacher and his daughter, Opal, in a sleepy Southern town, take in a mutt named Winn Dixie (named after the market where she finds him). The dog helps her deal with missing her absent mother and other childhood challenges.
Hoffman has worked the show in its two previous venues as it evolves. There’s never been a musical like this that stars a dog in almost every scene, said Hoffman, and Berloni knew he needed all hands on deck.
“Even if Brian the actor is only called from 12:30 to 2 for rehearsal, Brian the Dog Boy — that’s my affectionate term for myself— is actually called from 8:45 in the morning until 6:30. Because now ... Bill and I have such a long history, I can look at his face and know what he’s thinking, or he’ll say, ‘Hey, remember that thing we did for ‘Peter Pan Live’ on NBC,’ let’s try that.”
Hoffman also takes notes on every move the animal makes “because we’ve never had over 200 cues for an animal in a show. So, it’s a lot but I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Opal will be played by Josie Todd. Sophia Massa plays little Sweetie Pie Thomas. And Hoffman plays Sweetie Pie’s dad, supermarket assistant manager Jiggs (like the other parents, not in the film version).
The “Bowdie” name traces to the initials of the show’s title, Hoffman noted. The dog was rescued to play Winn Dixie five years ago but he also was fast-tracked to do “Peter Pan Live” on TV.
“He’s so smart; he has these incredibly soulful eyes,” said Hoffman. Asked about Bowdie’s breed, Hoffman said, “We know he’s poodle and something very, very big. ... I say poodle and a horse, potentially.”