See Spot Act

The Baltimore Sun

In Baltimore's long history of hosting traveling theater productions, it's possible that a cast has never been so delighted to pull into town as the one that arrived, with a yelp, this week.

Has a performer ever literally jumped for joy and bounded down the steps of a tour bus? Has anyone actually quivered in anticipation, shaking from head to tail? And, in the storied shadow of the Hippodrome, has an artist, in oblivious contentment, ever relieved himself right on the cold, wet sidewalk?

If they haven't before, they have now.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's menagerie of four-legged cast members, from terriers to Pomeranians to poodles to mutts, significantly ups the ante when it comes to canine star turns. Annie might have had Sandy. Gypsy's Mama Rose had Chowsie. But with eight wriggling, wagging, panting and preening stage dogs, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang might just be breaking the fur ceiling.

"Everyone says never work with children or dogs," says Ray Roderick, the director who adapted the Broadway show into the touring production that opened this week at the Hippodrome and runs through Jan. 18. "Clearly, I disagree."

The musical focuses on a whimsical family of inventors and their efforts to harness the powers of a magical car while outsmarting an evil baron and baroness.

Though the dogs aren't exactly central to this plot (don't tell them, but they don't even make the Playbill), the family's sentimental anchor is Edison, its bedraggled pet. Edison's spotlighted role, combined with periodic appearances by the seven other canines, who play wild, roaming neighborhood dogs, adds layers of surprise and soul to the show.

Although the original Broadway show wasn't so heavily dogged, with his rewrite, Roderick insisted on paying homage to the beloved 1968 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie, which was.

"I wanted those iconic moments from the movie as best as we could get them on stage," he says.

Of those classic dog scenes, one of the most memorable would have to be one in which the family realizes that their newly invented whistling candy, Toot Sweets, creates a noise that's irresistible to the canine ear. With just a lick and a few notes, all the neighborhood dogs come running.

In the show, the pack of small, feisty dogs bursts onto the stage and then sprints across it at full speed, seemingly willy-nilly. Though paws seem to by flying, it's in fact a controlled brand of chaos - controlled, that is, by Joanne Wilson, the production's noted trainer, constant wrangler and occasional pooper scooper.

Wilson, a longtime circus performer and animal trainer, now rescues dogs from shelters or takes them in from the street and turns them into show dogs.

The eight dogs in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are all hers. Edison is actually Samantha, a mixed-breed mutt she adopted about eight years ago after her vet called to say he had an abandoned dog with, perhaps, a whiff of showbiz potential.

When Wilson took Samantha home, she was a skittish dog who barely lifted her head due to an extreme shyness that Wilson suspects was born of neglect. Now Samantha is a diva who can sit in a chair on command, walk a tightrope and offer high-fives - to say nothing of starring in a show where she has the acting chops to play a male dog.

"It took a while but all of a sudden she opened up and said, 'I'll do anything you want,' " Wilson says, as she coaxes Samantha to beg in the lobby of the Hippodrome.

While fame, money or perhaps meaty roles motivate most actors, the furrier artists including Samantha turn it on for just one thing - hot dog.

"Anything for the almighty hot dog," Wilson says, laughing, as Samantha and the other players strain to nip tiny bits of it from her hand.

With it, she gets the dogs to enter and leave stage on cue, stand where they need to stand and generally behave better than some card-carrying theater professionals.

There's Buddy, the spotted rat terrier who can waltz on his hind legs. There's Penny, a caramel-colored Pomeranian who weighs only a little more than a pack of kosher all-beefs. There's Lucky and Bear and Cory and Percy and Sugar.

Wilson and her husband follow the show from town to town in a van that's about 17 feet long and 8 feet wide - a space that would be cramped for two people, let alone two people with eight show dogs, plus five more of Wilson's other dogs and yet one more pooch that belongs to a cast member.

For Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's 10-month run, that truck is not just a ride, it's home for man and beast. In Baltimore, one might find Wilson's residence parking spot on Eutaw Street, right in front of the theater. The barking gives it away.

Backstage, while they wait for their scenes, Wilson restrains the dogs in a portable pen. The cast can often be found there, grabbing a quick nuzzle or scratching someone behind the ears.

Dick Decareau, who plays Grandpa Potts and has the most onstage interaction with Edison, has had plenty of time since the show opened in November to contemplate the upside of acting alongside a dog.

When it comes right down to it, it's basically like acting alongside anyone - you gotta get to know them, butter them up, maybe share a couple of hot dogs.

Before his big scene with Edison, in which he sings a song to her, Decareau is sure to stop backstage and pet Samantha, let her lick his hand and give her a treat. While he's singing the number, he likes to imitate what Samantha does, putting a hand up if she raises a paw, cocking his head if she does. It's rarely the same thing twice.

"I enjoy her and I have the freedom, musically, that if it's different every night, that's OK. Sometimes I just laugh watching her, and the audience laughs, too," he says.

Though Samantha is typically spot on, sometimes, like any actor, she's just not feeling it.

One night, at a spot in the show where Decareau is supposed to turn to his son and say, "My boy, Edison and I are going dog sledding in Alaska," Samantha abruptly booked off the stage leaving Decareau to finish the line solo. He quickly added, "Or maybe not."

Perhaps it's because Decareau has performed for 28 years, both on and off Broadway, that he's able to say, convincingly, that he's OK sharing a curtain call with a shameless stealer of scenes.

"When the dog comes out, it's like a rock star's in the house," he says, laughing. "She gets bigger applause. Every time."

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