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“We are truly over the rainbow,” says Terry Shevchenko, owner and trainer of Tilley, Neddy and Winny, who have been cast as Dorothy’s beloved furball in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s North American premiere, coming to Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre on Dec. 20.
“(Tilley) is the type of dog that wants to do things and enjoys life to the limits. She lives life large,” said Shevchenko, of London, Ont. “She’s a little diva, you can see the smile on her face, she just eats this stuff up.”
In the spirit of that search, the show’s production team thought it would be fun to also have Canada select its favourite Toto. Ten pooches were chosen at Woofstock, the continent’s largest festival for dogs. Each week, there will be an elimination round following a Toto challenge, which includes doggie tricks and sports. Judges will whittle down the selection to the top three. Then it’s up to viewers to vote.
“We picked the dogs that were lovable — all sizes, all breeds — and we’ve laughed and enjoyed the process of working with them so much,” said Don Weiner, executive producer of Over the Rainbow, which airs Sundays and Mondays. “The Totos have been a real highlight for us. We’ve really fallen in love with them.”
The honourary Toto will win a grand prize and be outfitted with a red ruby collar during the show’s finale on Nov. 5. But unlike Dorothy, who’ll strut across the theatre’s stage in her ruby slippers, the winning pooch will only earn bragging rights, or barking rights perhaps.
Given the live-stage environment, noise, audience, applause, props and lights, the Toto gig went to dogs that have been trained to deal with those sorts of distractions.
Shevchenko, who retired from Sara Lee in 2006 as a business development manager, didn’t plan on getting his furry friends into showbiz, let alone on to the yellow brick road. After all, they were just the family dogs.
But when a member of the Middlesex Agility Club Shevchenko belongs to spotted how well Tilley responded to commands, it was suggested that he audition her for the role of Toto at the local theatre. Tilley nailed it, always followed closely on Dorothy’s heels, entering and exiting on cue and running down the theatre’s aisle to the stage, skillfully leaping over feet and on one occasion avoiding a child’s clutch.
Since her debut in 2009, she’s performed at various local theatres in three Wizard of Oz productions and one production of Annie Warbucks, clocking up a total of 145 live performances. (Neddy and Winny were trained onstage and were Tilley’s understudies, but never performed in front of an audience.)
In addition to finding dogs that were well-trained, experienced, and comfortable in a theatre setting, it was also important to find animals that won’t get bored onstage, which can be problematic given the repetition of doing live shows. Rotating the three dogs throughout the show’s Toronto run should help prevent boredom.
“They’re a pivotal part of the show, so we wanted animals that would respond well,” said Patrick Murphy, a producer of The Wizard of Oz, in a phone interview from London, England.
Whether Shevchenko and his dogs go on tour with the production will depend on how they perform.
“I fell into this, but there is nothing better than to go to work with your dogs,” said Shevchenko, while at the Ed Mirvish Theatre on Monday, when tickets went on sale. His dogs, who already respond to the name Toto, and the remaining Dorothys, were on-hand to meet the public and pose for pictures.
“I’ve been really lucky to have three dogs that really respond to training,” said Shevchenko, as he commanded the trio to do rollovers, dance and turn around, always with a reward of kibble in his hand. (Bits of chicken breast are their favourite.)
Members of the cast and crew will be asked to ignore the dogs, so they learn to focus on Dorothy, who will inevitably become their favourite because she’s the only one feeding them.
Hoping to get your pooch in to showbiz?
• The dog must be highly motivated to work for treats or toys, such as a frisbee or ball. And, he or she must be extremely confident and not distracted or fazed by an audience, bright lights and noises, anything you’d find on a set or stage.
• Never do anything that jeopardizes the dog’s physical or mental well-being.
Hoping to get your pooch in to showbiz?
Andre Yeu, owner and head trainer of When Hounds Fly, is training the dogs, and their owners, in the weekly Toto challenges on Over the Rainbow.
For those looking to get their dogs into showbiz, he shares some things to keep in mind:
The dog must be highly motivated to work for treats or toys, such as a frisbee or ball. And, he or she must be extremely confident and not distracted or fazed by an audience, bright lights and noises, anything you’d find on a set or stage.
Take the dog to a regular dog-training school that uses positive reinforcement and rewards the dog with treats, toys and things the dog likes.
Never blame the dog for not performing. If the dog doesn’t perform or something goes wrong, it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s the trainer’s fault for not getting him or her ready to perform.
Never do anything that jeopardizes the dog’s physical or mental well-being.