Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Family That Plays Together, Stays Together, Putting on Plays Together

Dorothy, Jenna, Macy and Bill Berloni. Photo Lauren Yarger.
By Lauren Yarger
The musical Annie stirs different emotions in the Berloni household. On the one hand, the Broadway show, which made its debut 33 years ago and brought fame to “Tomorrow”-belting Andrea McArdle, also launched Bill Berloni’s career as a theatrical animal trainer.

He rescued a dog from the shelter and trained him to play the role of Sandy when the musical was in previews at Goodspeed. When the production found its way to the Great White Way, Berloni’s role changed from wannabe actor to Broadway animal trainer. 30 plus years, countless dogs and scores of Annie productions later, he still provides dogs for tours and regional productions of the show around the country as well as a variety of animal stars for other stage shows like Legally Blonde and The Wiz, television commercials and feature films like “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Producers” to name a few.

On the other hand, “It’s a wonderful annuity,” he said about Annie in a recent interview, “but I do long for new material, too. I’ve listened to a lot of tomorrows for this,” he laughed, gesturing at his 90 acres in Higganum, where he currently has 23 dogs, six equines, two llamas, five cats and some Jacobin pigeons, all in training for their moments in the spotlight.

Bill will provide Sandy once again when the musical enjoys a 35th anniversary revival on Broadway in 2012. Before then, though, a local production will hit close to home.

Artful Living, a community theater group in Killingworth, CT will present a limited run of the musical July 30 through Aug. 8 and Macy, starring as Sandy, won’t be the only Berloni taking the stage. Bill’s wife, Dorothy, who has served as a company manager for Annie, been cast as Miss Hannigan (pictured, left, with Hollis Long, who stars as Annie; Photo by Peg Scofield, PurpleDog Productions ) and daughter, Jenna, will play little orphan Pepper. It’s the first time all three family members have been involved with a production.

“My vision for Artful Living is to empower families to come together for a validating theatrical experience while learning together the craft of musical theater,” Christopher Solimene, producer and founder of Artful Living, said. ‘Making life-long memories with members of their community is an added benefit. So many parent-child, grandparent-grandchild combinations have graced our stage. I am grateful to be able to provide the Berlonis the opportunity to all come together in this production, especially considering their lifetime connection to Annie.”

Dorothy, who had done some acting in dinner theaters, met Solimene while helping out on Jenna’s middle school productions, which he directs. She was impressed with the quality of the productions and both she and Jenna performed in last year’s Artful Living production of The Sound of Music (Dorothy was one of the nuns and Jenna was Luisa, one of the Von Trapp children) before deciding to go out for Annie as well. It was daunting for Dorothy, who hadn’t really performed in 10 years.

“The dancing scares the bejesus out of me," she laughs, but she’s enjoying the experience and working with Jenna, who has been bitten by the theatre bug and who will “audition for anything,” her mom jokes.

The auditions have gone well and Jenna landed the understudy roles of Helen Keller in last season’s The Miracle Worker at Ivoryton Playhouse and Jane in Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter last season at The Goodpseed Opera House.

It’s exciting for the young actress who before had only had some cameos on Sesame Street when her dad contributed some live animals for the show. (Her dad still kids her for not realizing that the Muppets weren’t real animals before arriving on the set).

Her favorite part of performing is getting to work in a “make believe” reality where she can just have fun and not worry about what anyone thinks.

Reality may take on a new definition for the family, however, as a reality television series about their lives is in development.

Catch them live at Haddam Killingworth Middle School, where Artful Living’s production of Annie will run on the following schedule: Friday July 30, 7:30 pm; Saturday July 31, 7:30 pm; Sunday Aug. 1, 2 pm; Friday Aug. 6, 7:30 pm; Saturday Aug.7, 7:30 pm; Sunday Aug. 8, 2 pm. Ticket and other information is available at

The middle school, 451 Route 81, Killingworth, CT, is located north of the Route 80/81 circle and south of the intersection of Route 148 and Route 81.

Find out more about Bill’s theatrical training experiences at his website and in his book, Broadway Tails, available for purchase here.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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