Toto  hopefuls put best paws forward

Jerry Strain's portrayal of a lion doesn't bother Oreo, as he tries out for the Toto role in "The Wizard of Oz." At left is Oreo's owner, Jenna Walden.

DANVILLE — Auditioning for a part in a play is hair-raising under the best of conditions.

But bring in a flying monkey, a roaring lion and a wicked witch … and, well, some might tuck their tail between their legs and scamper away.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen Thursday night when five small dogs tried out for the part of Toto for “The Wizard of Oz.” Instead of being frightened, most of the would-be actors took it all in stride, enjoying the attention and intrigued by the humans’ antics.

One lucky dog got that coveted call-back.

Oreo, 7 ½ years, a Shih Tzu/Yorkshire terrier shown by Jenna Walden, will play Toto in DLO Musical Theatre’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The production will be Oct. 25-27 at the Dick Van Dyke Auditorium at Danville High School.

Director Beckey Burgoyne said, “I do believe we found our perfect Toto!”

She and others didn’t know what to expect, as this was DLO’s first canine audition.

“I was beyond thrilled with the evening,” she added. “All the doggies were so well behaved and our cast interaction was such fun to watch.”

Dog trainer Carolyn Daniel agreed, saying it was her first doggy tryouts, too, but thought everything went well.

“All were strong,” she said of the contenders.

In addition to Oreo, the hopefuls were: Gunther, a 2 ½-year-old Pekingese-poodle-corgi mix owned by Brooke Kuchefski; Leo, a 21-month-old Yorkie owned by Jenna Van Ee; Tux, 10, a Maltese-Yorkie owned by Stacy Ewing; and Paige, 6 months, a Papillion owned by Craig Krukewitte, who plays the Tin Man in the show.

As it turned out, the judges liked Oreo’s maturity, how he reacted well to noises and how he let people handle him. He even looks a bit like the original Toto, a Cairn terrier.

The dogs were critiqued on how well they connected to the characters and children, reacted to music, tolerated being put into a basket, and handled loud noises such as applause. Generally, Daniel looked at the dogs’ temperaments and how well they adjusted to a strange situation.

Those strange situations included a few of the cast acting in character — such as the roaring lion played by Jerry Strain, a flying monkey — Laramie Ziegler — jumping around and Wicked Witch of the West — Lisa Strain — shrieking into the dog’s face.

Cindy Peck as Dorothy sang to each dog as she cuddled it, and her children, Caroline, 6, and Joanna, 2, who will play Munchkins, pet and played with each pup to test its temperament.

DLO cast members had to laugh when Tux nuzzled the scary characters — the witch, monkey and lion — instead of being scared of them.

As the dogs were introduced to all of the characters and noise, the cast had a good time joking about getting a four-legged cast mate.

“Nobody ever calls me ‘good boy’ when I do something right,” one actor joked.

The new Toto will have to attend rehearsals as often as possible, with Daniel available to help out during some of those rehearsals.

However, the dog will not fly when Dorothy is whisked into the air. A stuffed animal will be used during Dorothy’s two flights.

DLO is in the process of raising money to cover the $7,000 cost of using ZFX, a professional theatrical flying company based in Lexington, Ky. The company will provide special equipment, including a custom-built track system and rigging. The company will help with choreography and will advise the flight crew, who will run the flying apparatus.

DLO used flying equipment in “The Little Mermaid.”

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