Little dog brings star power to big cast of URI Theatre’s stage production of “Legally Blonde”

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URI junior trains Chihuahua for spotlight as Elle Woods’ sidekick

KINGSTON, RI – April 12, 2016 – When Paula McGlasson, chair of the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department, selected “Legally Blonde” for the department’s spring musical, she knew she faced a challenge filling out a massive cast of 30 actors to bring the show to life.

But one role, more than any other, was the most challenging to fill – Bruiser, the faithful companion of Elle Woods.

McGlasson, who is directing “Legally Blonde,” knew the show needed a live Chihuahua if she was going to succeed in capturing the pink-infused fun of the story of Elle Woods, a blonde sorority girl who heads to Harvard Law School to win back her boyfriend, with her diminutive partner Bruiser at her side.

“We’ve done shows such as ‘Annie’ and ‘Camelot,’ and several others with animals on stage,” McGlasson said. “We had a horse on stage for ‘Camelot,’ right there in the Robert E. Will Theatre. So while we knew having a dog in the cast was a challenge we had to consider, it didn’t deter us from selecting the show.”

In much the same way that a director must choose the right actor to play a leading role such Elle Woods, McGlasson couldn’t give the role of Bruiser to just any dog. She needed a dog with the right look, temperament and intelligence to play the role.

And that’s where Kathleen Leach, a junior in URI’s Department of Animal Science and Technology, came into the picture. Hailing from Williston, Vt., Leach has trained dogs to star in “Legally Blonde” before. Leach worked with dogs to prepare them for a production by Lyric Theatre in Burlington, Vt., so when she saw a flier posted by the Theatre Department seeking a Chihuahua to play Bruiser, she immediately emailed McGlasson.

“I just knew I had to be involved,” Leach said.

McGlasson quickly knew she had the right person to find the four-legged co-star.

“It was the greatest bit of fortune and she’s an extraordinary young woman,” McGlasson said. “We absolutely knew we’d have to give the dog training, and I’m so glad it’s a student, and not someone from the outside, who gets to do it.”

To locate Bruiser, Leach reached out to Murphy’s Paw, a dog grooming boutique in Stratford, Conn., that works with animal rescue leagues to place stray or abandoned dogs.

Leach, who also trains dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, said Chihuahuas are the most often abandoned dogs in California, so when it was time to find one, she and Murphy’s Paw contacted a rescue league in the Golden State. Leach sorted through batches of doggy dossiers, searching for a Chihuahua that not only fit Bruiser’s look, but also had the personality needed to perform on stage.

“I have a list of qualities the dog needed to possess to be the right one for this play,” she said. “It needed to be a fast learner; it had to work for food – I do all my training with positive reinforcement; it needed to be a smart dog, engaged, not tentative or shy.”

Once she located Bruiser and had him flown in from the West Coast, the real work began. With a short turnaround of around two months, Leach needed two hours per day, every day, to teach the rescue dog all the basics – potty training, sitting on command, heeling. Only after Bruiser had mastered those basic commands was Leach able to begin teaching the dog how to inhabit the role of Elle Woods’ best friend. She also worked with the production’s other dog, Rufus, a 54-pound bulldog, though she said Rufus’s work largely consists of sitting still.

Leach, who is considering a post-graduate career as an animal trainer, said even though she broke Bruiser’s training into several short sessions per day, the dog’s rapid improvement wouldn’t have been possible without Bruiser’s stamina and work ethic.

Bruiser can now speak on command, among other skills, allowing her to interact with Anya Fox, a senior theater major from Wyoming, R.I., who plays the lead role of Elle, and hold a “conversation” with Emma Walker, of Naples, Maine, who plays Margot. However, the biggest challenge remains as the production moves closer to opening night.

“The commands are pretty easy to teach, it’s the bonds that are difficult to forge,” Leach said. “Any change can be difficult for a trained dog. Each set is like a different place for her, and the audience is something we can’t replicate. We did a photoshoot with Anya and Bruiser and it was the first time she saw Anya in her blonde wig. It took a few minutes for her to warm up to Anya before she was licking her nose. Fortunately, we get dress rehearsals to make sure she’s ready.”

Bruiser will surely delight audiences as Elle’s sidekick, but Fox said she brings more to the production than just her own stage presence.

“I was excited to work with Bruiser and she really helps my character, Elle, come to life,” Fox said. “She is smart as a whip, which makes it easier for me as an actor to communicate with her.”

As curtain approaches, time is growing short for Leach and Fox to enjoy the company of Bruiser. Leach has housed the dog since it arrived in Rhode Island, and will continue to do so through the end of the show. She won’t, however, be Bruiser’s primary caretaker much longer. McGlasson knows Bruiser is headed to a good home.

“I’ve had that cutie’s picture on my computer screen since she got here and I didn’t feel right about just using her for the play,” McGlasson said. “We were thinking about holding an adoption ceremony, or putting an ad in the program for anyone who wanted to adopt her, but we already have two very interested people here in the department who want her. It’s just wonderful.”

Whomever brings the Chihuahua into their home will have one high-performing pup on their hands.

Performances of “Legally Blonde” will run April 21 through April 23 and April 28 through April 30 with performances at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert E. Will Theatre in the URI Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road on the Kingston Campus. Additional performances will be held April 24 and May 1 at 3 p.m.

Pictured above

University of Rhode Island senior Anya Fox, of Wyoming, R.I., relished the chance to work with Bruiser, a rescued Chihuahua, in the URI Theatre Department’s upcoming musical production of “Legally Blonde,” beginning April 21. Photo courtesy of the URI Theatre Department

Bruiser, a rescued Chihuahua from California, will star as Elle Woods’ sidekick , in the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department’s upcoming musical production of “Legally Blonde,” beginning April 21. Photo courtesy of the URI Theatre Department

University of Rhode Island junior Kathleen Leach, of Williston, Vt., searched out Elle Woods’ sidekick Bruiser and trained her for the spotlight in the URI Theatre Department’s upcoming musical production of “Legally Blonde,” beginning April 21.

Photo by Nora Lewis, University of Rhode Island