UPDATE, April 12, 2016: The production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” will be transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in London in June, with Audra McDonald continuing in the title role. For tickets and more info, visit LondonTheatre.co.uk.
Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald got on the floor in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theater Tuesday afternoon to snuggle, hug and cuddle with a motley group of cute pooches aspiring to make their Broadway debut. She was looking for a co-star for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” and the search has some urgency since performances begin March 25, 2014.
McDonald will play Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz singers of all time in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which recounts Holiday’s life story through the songs that made her famous. It is set in 1959 in an intimate Philadelphia bar in what would turn out to be the final month of her life. During that time, her small dog was her best friend and constant companion.
Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni – his last feat was casting the mixed terrier Sandy in the recent revival of “Annie” – and McDonald were trying to select the best pooch for the part at this final doggy callback. The search began months ago via Social Media and involved looking at photographs of small adorable pooches from all over the country.
I asked the animal casting director what they were looking for. “Billie Holliday loved dogs,” he said. “They were her very close companions, so we’re just looking for a dog that has a very sweet demeanor and is very friendly.”
He added, “During part of the show, she brings her dog onstage and sings to her.” The dog had to be small enough to lift comfortably and could not be too hammy. “We don’t want the people looking at the dog and not Audra’s performance,” Berloni said.
He also was looking for a more naturalistic look, so the pooch could not be too pedigreed. “The play takes place about a month before she passes away, so both her and the dog were sort of in rough condition, so don’t want anybody to look too prim and proper,” Berloni explained.
Berloni agreed that among this crew of cuties, a star could be born!
The pooches seemed laid back, more so than their enthusiastic stage mothers, although a fight nearly broke out between a West Highland Terrier and a Brussels Griffon that got in each other’s space.
The Maltese Lucca seemed zen-like. He was attending his first stage audition, owner Suzanne Keller told me. “He is not nervous,” she said. “He’s been listening to Billie Holliday and running his lines all week.” As for any competitive jealousy among the canines, she insisted, “They don’t know jealousy. The dogs root for each other.”
This was perhaps not entirely true, since some of the dogs growled at each other.
The winsome Brussels Griffon, owned by Tiffany Jones, had a remarkable overbite that made him look a little ferocious. He weighed in at 13 lbs. which I told Jones might be a little heavy for constant lifting. “She’s got the arms for it,” Jones said of the fit and gorgeous McDonald.
As for size, none of the pooches could beat Campari and Bellini, toy red poodles that weighed about three pounds. Campari wore a fetching Indiana Jones type hat, which Berloni asked to have removed so he could get a gander at her face.
Also in the petite class were cutie Yorkshire terriers Babette and Gidget. “They love attention,” the owner told me. “They love sitting in laps and being picked up and giving kisses.”
During the final judging, the dogs and owners came forward as McDonald and Berloni, who sat behind tables, starred intently but benevolently at the doggy actor wannabes. It was clear the owners wanted it more than the pooches. They pleaded with their pets to give high fives, spin in circles and give kisses. Sometimes they accommodated. Sometimes they didn’t. Just like your dog.
“Well I’m going in there,” said McDonald. She got out of her chair and crawled on the floor to play with the dogs. She also held them and whispered conspiratorially. “They’re adorable,” McDonald told the owner of Babette and Gidget.
At 20 pounds, the handsome cocker spaniel may have exceeded the weight requirement. “She looks smaller in the photographs,” Berloni said. “It’s okay,” McDonald told the dog. “You’ve got a great figure.”
Porkchop, a long-haired Chihuahua, seemed to tick many boxes. She was small and snuggled comfortably in Audra McDonald’s arms. “Do you smell my dogs?” Audra asked the pooch. “My doggies are way too big to be in this show. They’re 80 and 50 lbs.”
The owner of the sweet but largish Westie said his dog was at her most lap doggish in the morning. Berloni conceded that might be a problem. “We need her to be in a lap dog frame of mind around 8:30 p.m.”
McDonald picked up another contender, cooed, then stopped in her tracks. “Is that a growl?” she asked about the sound that seemed to come from the pooch. “That’s ok,” she told the dog. “Sometimes it’s just not a love match.”