Handling Sandy

William Berloni with a client named Sunny; another dog, Macy, plays Sandy in Annie.

Ever since the musical Annie premiered in the ’70s, choosing the young title character has proven suspenseful, sometimes even controversial. Veteran A-listers such as Sarah Jessica Parker found fame after stints playing the irrepressible orphan, a role based off the whimsical (and often political) vintage comic strip.

In 1997, a national talent search boosted the Broadway revival of Annie — but after nabbing the role, 12-year-old Joanna Pacitti was fired for lackluster performances and replaced by an understudy who was only 8. Her parents sued for lost revenue.

A recent movie version of Annie, in 2014, starred Beasts of the Southern Wild Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. However, a weak script sabotaged the inspired casting choice, and the film was widely panned.

Flat Rock Playhouse is triumphant in its choice of Carly Gendell, a 12-year-old Broadway actor from New York City, to fulfill the honors in the local company’s stage debut of Annie. Along with her talent and spark, Gendell has large pet dogs at home. And that, animal trainer William Berloni reveals to Bold Life, is what makes him “optimistic” about the success of this latest version of the production. “It’s a good thing,” he says, since Annie’s loyal dog Sandy is on stage almost continually.

In other musicals — Berloni names Oliver! and Gypsy — canine characters may add atmosphere, but can, if necessary, be written out of the scenes. None are as integral to their respective stories as sidekick Sandy, who supplants parental affection and protection and helps maneuver key points of the plot.

Berloni is the top dog when it comes to training animals for theater and film. He’s been at it for 40 years, winning a Tony, and, more importantly in some circles, an ASPCA Humanitarian Award. His mode is low-key positive reinforcement: “I don’t know where humans got the idea that being militaristic with dogs is the best way to get them to listen,” Berloni comments.

He favors mutts over purebreds when it comes to big roles, citing their easygoing manner and versatility. An experienced mixed-breed named Macy plays Sandy in the Flat Rock production; she’s headed south from Berloni’s farm in Connecticut with her handler Lara Hayhurst, who will also appear in the ensemble cast.

Hayhurst met Berloni when she played Elle Woods in a stage version of Legally Blonde and worked with the two small dogs portraying the lead character’s chihuahua Bruiser. “I fell in love with Bill’s positive methodology and the fact that his dogs were rescues,” she says, noting that Macy is “lovely and sweet.”

Berloni doesn’t just rely on his official caretakers, though. At certain points in the musical, Sandy must look around questioningly for Annie, lay his head on his paws as though dejected, and perform other emotional gestures. To sustain the mood, whichever child plays Annie is expected to master a system of consistent prompts and rewards to direct the animal, smoothly embedding these “commands” into the flow of action and dialogue.

“The little girl becomes an animal trainer,” says Berloni. “We turn our leads into professional dog handlers. They learn a whole new language.” But to pull off this feat — in any movie or play — an actor can’t fake the bottom line.

“Before I can teach you,” he says, “you have to love dogs. If there’s no feeling, then it doesn’t work.”

Annie, starring Carly Gendell and Macy, debuts on the Mainstage at Flat Rock Playhouse (2661 Greenville Hwy.) on Friday, June 9, and runs through Sunday, July 2. Shows are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm and 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. $15-$50. Call the box office at 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org for more information.

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