STONEHAM – They came to the theater eager to please, some with painted paws and with ribbons in their fur, some wearing ballerina-style pink dresses, and others sporting matching shirts.
Some were shy, hiding in the purse they had to ride in, with only their ears showing. Some did not want to go in the purse at all. Others couldn’t get over all the excitement and attention, running around, sniffing at everything. Most jumped right off the stage and into their owners’ arms as soon as they got the chance.
But no one had an accident on the stage, no one fought, and only one of the 14 that showed up barked – in a friendly, high-pitched voice as it tried to entice the theater’s crew to play.
That was the scene at last Saturday’s audition for the part of Chow Mein – Mama Rose’s dog in the musical “Gypsy,” which will be presented at the Stoneham Theatre next month. Two of the 14 were selected based on how they looked inside a shoulder-bag purse, how they responded to piano music and to applause, and what they did when their picture was taken.
“I was expecting some degree of barking, accidents, and fighting, and we had none of it,” said the show’s director, Caitlin Lowans, who is casting a dog for the first time in her career. “I think because they were so well behaved, we got to pick for the perfect look, which is great.”
Set in the early 20th century, “Gypsy” is based on the autobiography of Seattle-born striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, who died in 1970 in Los Angeles. The play follows the life of Lee’s mother, Mama Rose, who travels around the country hoping to turn her two daughters into vaudeville stars. As she travels, Mama Rose carries around her dog Chow Mein, who rides inside her purse.
A Jack Russell terrier named Cleo came to the audition from Lynnfield with Olivia Costello, 9, and Natasha Cushing, 7, who helped pick out Cleo’s pink dress in a dog-clothing store.
“I did her nails today,” Olivia said proudly. “The first paw she tried to run away, then I got her.”
Olivia said children from the neighborhood wanted Cleo to audition “because we wanted to see her do different things, and see if she can stay in a basket, and see if she can win or not.”
Cleo likes costumes, according to her owner, Kathy Cushing, who boasted that her dog dresses up as a princess for Halloween and even has her own Red Sox hat. But Cleo was not one of the two chosen.
For the selection committee, there was a lot to think about. The theater has never had a dog perform on stage. How will the color of the dog match the set? Will the dog run off? Will it climb inside the actor’s shirt during the show? How will it react to music and applause? Will it be able to stay quiet and calm in a bright spotlight, while it is the center of everyone’s attention? Can it sit, lie down, or bark on command?
A tiny Chihuahua was rejected because “it was a little too modern,” and “a little Paris Hilton,” said Lowans. Another contestant didn’t make it because it was fond of climbing on everyone’s back.
“At first I thought a dog who grips, that’s awesome, but then when it turned into a dog that grips and climbs on your back, that’s slightly less awesome,” she said.
In the end, though, it was cuteness that mattered most.
When a soft and fluffy gray poodle named Teddy was brought in, wiggling his tail, everybody just oohed and aahed.
“Oh, my goodness! He is so lightweight and so soft!” exclaimed the theater’s marketing manager, Sara Meek, as she took Teddy into her arms.
There was nothing that Teddy could do wrong.
It didn’t matter that he immediately jumped off the stage when he heard the applause, and ran to his owner, Dan O’Neill of Stoneham, who was sitting in the first row with his two children, Lauren, 12, and Allie, 10.
“Teddy is a really good gray color,” Lowans said. “I looked at his face – I thought he had a great face. Some dogs [would be] great from the first row, but Teddy with his shaping, you see him from a distance.”
Her only concern, she said, was that Teddy was so good-looking that his cuteness could be a distraction.
The second winning dog was Roxy, a Pomeranian, that Lowans described as “glamorous” and “the Barbie of a dog.” Lowans selected Roxy, owned by Madeline Wyse of Melrose, because she said Chow Mein II, the dog that Mama Rose acquired later in her life, should “indicate a rise in family fortune.”
In addition to the two dogs, the script also features a monkey, a bird, and a lamb, all of which Mama Rose also took along as she traveled the country.
Although the bird will be an artificial one and the monkey’s presence will probably only be hinted at with off-stage noises, Lowans said she is still looking for a lamb to use in “Gypsy.”
Having animals in the show “adds an element of fun and surprise,” she said, and helps describe Mama Rose’s personality in a powerful way.
“She appears to be a very tough woman, but we get to see a softer side of Mama Rose when she interacts with her dog,” Lowans said, adding that it appears Mama Rose collected animals along the way because she loved animals and didn’t care what people thought of her.
“Gypsy” will be performed at Stoneham Theatre Sept. 13-30. For more information, visit stonehamtheatre.org.
Julie Masis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.