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Pooches put best paw forward for Broadway role

NEW YORK (AP) — They were raw talents — some delighted by the attention, others confused. More than one sniffed happily in the audition room, just happy to be there.

Fourteen small dogs ranging from English cocker spaniels to toy poodles got callbacks Wednesday for the chance to star opposite five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald on Broadway in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," a musical that imagines one of Billie Holiday's last performances in 1959.

The dogs had to enjoy being held, get along with other animals and people and weigh less than 15 pounds. No previous stage experience was required, and most didn't have any. Many were service dogs. One had been the ring bearer at a wedding.

At the beginning of the process, held in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theatre, Broadway animal trainer Bill Berloni told the owners that an ability to do tricks wasn't what he and the producers wanted.

"What we're looking for is a dog who will portray this character's best friend at the end of her life. So relax, everybody. It's all about the relationship you have with your animal," he said. "Be yourself. Show us what's special about your dog. Don't worry about putting on a performance."

The final 14 had been whittled down from an initial group of close to 100 dogs. A winner — picked on a score that incudes appearance, demeanor and physicality — will be announced in the coming days. McDonald and Berloni took turns asking each owner questions and holding the dogs. "I'm going in!" warned McDonald as she got out from behind her desk and scooped up a Teacup Yorkie. "We do listen to Billie Holiday CDs," said Catherine Grant, the dog's owner.

McDonald was a little stunned when Sotirios Hantzaridres' 13-year-old Westie happily ate a carrot from its owner. "Can he talk to my daughter about that?" she asked. But another encounter between the actress and a long-haired Chihuahua named Yo-Yo went poorly when the animal seemed to growl in McDonald's arms. "It's not a love match," she said.

One of the animals became a crowd favorite: Sylvia, a French bulldog who prefers to drink out of stemware and attacks tennis balls, licked McDonald's face lustily. Cradled in the actress's arms, Sylvia was on the heavy side and snorted happily. "She sounds like Jabba the Hutt," McDonald said.

After meeting all the applicants, including a Jack Russell terrier rescued from a puppy mill and a white Maltese so professional it had a resume and headshot, McDonald was philosophical: "You know what's interesting? You certainly find out whether you have chemistry or not."

The musical, written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, puts an ailing Holiday in a small club in Philadelphia and lets McDonald sing such timeless classics as "Somebody's On My Mind," ''Don't Explain" and "Strange Fruit." Previews begin March 25 at the Circle in the Square Theatre, and opening night is set for April 13.

The dog will appear in one scene close to the end of the musical, as McDonald sings "Ain't Nobody's Business." Berloni said he was leaning toward two dogs who "wouldn't upstage Audra and who felt comfortable in her arms."

In reality, Holiday had first a boxer and then a Chihuahua, but producers are more interested in the relationship between the animal and McDonald, who has three dogs of her own. The dog will be the fourth animal trained for a New York stage this season, following dogs in "Bullets Over Broadway," ''The Threepenny Opera" and "The Open House."

Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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