Arvada Center casts from Aurora Animal Shelter for canine character

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AURORA | He arrived with no formal background or training, a lack of experience that would doom most actors looking to land a role in a mainstage production at the Arvada Center.

That inexperience went deeper than the absence of a resumé or a headshot – the performer who would play a key role in the theater’s current production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” came without a name and without a home. Before the big audition, he’d been shuttled between shelters in Aurora and Golden.

Those challenges didn’t stop the two-year-old Chihuahua terrier mix from immediately winning over the show’s cast and crew. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the former stray from the Foothills Animal Shelter to win the role of Bruiser, the loyal canine companion of the show’s lead character, a sorority-girl-turned-Harvard-law-student named Elle Woods.

“He had no name. He was a stray they picked up, and he was one of the first ones that they brought to us,” said Rod Lansberry, the show’s artistic producer. “Right away, to be honest, he was a hit … He’s just an adorable dog.”

The musical by Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin and Heather Hach follows the basic storyline of the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson. Woods, a bright and peppy sorority girl from a Southern California college, decides to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School with plans of winning him back. As Woods (played by Hayley Podschun in the Arvada Center production) moves from her West Coast comfort zone to the high-pressure and academically demanding world of Harvard, Bruiser remains her constant companion.

The role may lack speaking parts, but Bruiser has been an iconic part of the musical since it debuted on Broadway in 2007, figuring in the musical’s posters and logos. Along with the role of Rufus the bulldog, Bruiser is one of two canine parts spelled out in the script, a requirement that figured into the first calculations of the Arvada Center’s casting directors earlier this year.

“We’ve had two other shows with dogs in the past, and in both of those cases, the actress brought her own dog,” said Lansberry, who helped lead the effort to find the right Bruiser. “This was the first one where we had to have a Chihuahua, just because it’s in the script, it’s part of the logo. It’s also written that the other one had to be a bulldog.”

Instead of putting out an audition notice for pet owners to bring in their own animals, Lansberry said the crew decided to look at the local animal shelter. Jennifer Strickland, a spokeswoman for the Foothills Animal Shelter in Jefferson County, said it didn’t take very long to find an ideal candidate for the role. Like other shelters in the metro area, Foothills has seen a greater influx recently of Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes, a boom that can be chalked up to a bigger presence in popular culture.

“They’re seen with stars, being toted around in a purse as an accessory,” Strickland said, adding that the dogs are abandoned when owners realize they can’t make the proper commitment needed for a pet. “I think that has definitely set into why we see more of them in shelters.”

One of Strickland’s first candidates was a dog who’d come to Jefferson County from Aurora, a stray who was still looking for a home.

“He came in with two other little dogs. He came to us cream in color, pretty wiry,” Strickland said, describing the Chihuahua-terrier mix who would eventually take the name of his onstage character. “It’s a lot to ask of any dog to be able to endure several weeks of rehearsals, then to have longer days at the theater. We had had Bruiser back in the office area with us … I think it was a couple of us that got to talking and saying that maybe he would be a candidate. My first thought was he doesn’t look like the Bruiser in the movie.”

Appearances aside, the dog immediately warmed to the cast and crew at the Arvada Center. What’s more, he seemed to get along with Pickles, the French bulldog who plays Rufus.

“We wanted to put the two of them together to make sure that there were no conflicts,” Lansberry recalled. “Our little Bruiser and him hit it off immediately.”

After a haircut and a dye job, the dog fit the profile of Chihuahua from the film. The newly named Bruiser found a home with Lisa Kurtz, the production’s stage manager who agreed to foster the dog for the duration of the show, which runs until the beginning of July. Just as Pickles the bulldog found a permanent home with a Foothills board member after a foster stay, the arrangement could last beyond the show’s final curtain call.

“She’s been taking care of Bruiser through this whole process,” said Lansberry, who added that potential foster parents have to go through a background check through the shelter. “We’re just waiting to see if she’s going to be able to give him up.”

Bruiser’s success story came in part from a partnership between Foothills and the Aurora Animal Shelter. Both facilities are part of the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance, a network that allows shelters to exchange animals in case of emergencies, capacity issues or other reasons.

“Sometimes it could be a mass intake. Sometimes it could be a cruelty case. For a massive fire, we may have to transfer out current shelter animals to make room for people’s pets,” Strickland said. “If we’ve had an animal that’s been with us for a while, it could be that just a change in venue is what is needed. It’s a win-win for everybody.”