Could a successful run in Wilmington turn into a trip to Broadway for the canine-based production?

Bud Martin pushed hard to acquire the musical stage production of the landmark film "Diner" and bring it to the riverfront's Delaware Theatre Company.

In the end, he was outbid by Signature, a prominent Arlington, Va. theater company.

There was a silver lining. Instead, Martin brought in the musical adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2000 best-selling novel "Because of Winn-Dixie" that tells the heartwarming story of a 13-year old girl and her preacher father who move to a trailer park in the Florida panhandle. Opal goes into the local supermarket and quickly befriends a lively stray dog. She dubs him Winn-Dixie after the store. The scruffy but charming mutt shows how the smallest act of kindness can ripple into a celebration of a once broken community.

"This was definitely serendipity going on here," said Martin, Delaware Theatre Company's artistic and executive director.

"A friend, Scott Landis, whom I'm involved with in other shows, called me, 'Bud, this needs a home. I think you'll like it.' He sent me some clips of it from a previous show in Arkansas which piqued my interest. I talked to my two granddaughters who told me it was their favorite book. I bought the book and I loved it."

It's a story of joy and magic. It will melt your heart.

Broadway goes to the dogs

A two-year old, 85-pound poodle mix, Bowdie stars in the title role of the production that opens April 8 and runs to Sunday, May 3. "Because of Winn-Dixie" is the most anticipated show of an already heady season. Martin and the show's producers hope to bring the production to Broadway within a year where it would become the first musical starring a live dog as the main character.

Several years ago Dorothy and Bill Berloni acquired the theatrical rights. One of the lead producers of the Wilmington production, Dorothy assembled the creative team. The musical features a score by Tony and Grammy award winner Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), lyrics and book by Tony nominee Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde), and directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge.

"I have to tell you that I would never have thought of kids, a dog and Duncan Sheik in the same sentence," laughed Martin, who has significantly raised the profile of the theater company since he arrived in 2012.

Bill Berloni provides animal direction. A 2011 Tony Honor recipient, he launched his animal training career with the original dog Sandy in the 1977 Broadway premiere of the hit musical "Annie" at age 20. For the past 35 years Berloni has masterfully trained an array of canines and other animals to become stars in scores of film, stage and television performances. The animals are game for whatever he throws at them.

"Because of Winn-Dixie" takes place in a small town in Naomi, Florida. Young Opal's daddy has always told her to help those less fortunate. And surely Winn-Dixie is in need of a friend. Opal needs one, too. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known. The canine helps her gain confidence, meet some of the quirky people in town and navigate her difficult feelings about her mother, who had abandoned the family years before.

When Nell Benjamin signed onto the project, she pushed to bring in Sheik to write the music. For all of his acclaim scoring musicals, Sheik is still probably best known as a singer/songwriter who became a pop-rock star in the 1990s with his debut single, "Barely Breathing." It stuck around on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than a year, one of the longest runs in history. The southern rock, rockabilly, country and blues he grew up listening to in South Carolina are a highlight of "Because of Winn-Dixie."

Scruffy mutts turned stars

The theatrical magic of Bill Berloni is another highlight. Typically he starts his dogs in training at 18 months. He starts with basic obedience training and then trains them with the actors. A dog actor has to be trained to ignore the distraction of the audience and respond to the same cues in the same manner night after night, just like its human counterparts. Multiple actors are giving commands on stage, so the dog needs to be loyal to more than one person. Typically, there are 15 to 20 commands.

"Through a combination of persistence, patience and trial and error, my handlers and I create successful performances," Berloni said. "It's a method of positive reinforcement. There is no intimidation. We never force an animal to work if it pulls back."

"The dogs need to be smart, friendly and have no aggression, but the number one concern is they have to be able to deal with stress. Safety is all-important. In this show there are 75-pound kids handling an 85-pound dog. Our dogs are treated like service dogs. They have a job to do. There is no meet and greet after the performance. The dog is whisked off the stage."

Scruffy mutts have been very good to Berloni. He plucked the original Sandy from an animal shelter the day before the dog was to be euthanized. For most of the shows he works, Berloni has found dogs in shelters-- a practice that helps awareness of pet adoption.

When the canines retire from their acting jobs they return to the Berloni's Connecticut farm, home to a menagerie of more than two dozen animals. Owned by the Berlonis, Bowdie has lived at the farm for more than a year. Last December he starred as Nana in the NBC network live broadcast of "Peter Pan Live." Bowdie stole the show performing every action on cue, barking, moving and even helping to tuck the kids in at bedtime at all the scripted moments. The role of Nana has been historically played by an actor in a dog suit.

The stakes are high for the run of performances of Wilmington's "Because of Winn-Dixie."

"We've got nine adults, five kids and one dog in the cast," said Martin. "It's not the biggest cast I've had here, but there are a lot of complicating factors. Wrangling the kids. Bill and his assistant are on either side of the stage monitoring the dog. Then you throw in the sounds and lights and a summer storm and how it all impacts the dog."

Additional tension will be generated by faces in the crowd. Martin has invited Manhattan theater owners and potential investors down to the riverfront venue to cast their verdict as to whether the show is ready for a Broadway run. The production will span four weeks (normal is three) with the possibility of adding a fifth week of shows in May. Martin's goal is to top Delaware Theatre Company's all-time best selling production "Ain't Misbehavin" which established a box office record and brought in $178,000 in revenues.

Adoption events will be held every Saturday morning during the run of the production:

April 18 10am- 2pm- SPCA of Delaware

April25 10am- 2pm- Faithful Friends of Delaware

May 2 10am-2pm- Delaware Humane Society

Go to www.DelawareTheatre.org to learn more.

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Terry Conway writes about arts and culture throughout Delaware and the Brandywine Valley. You can read his work at www.terryconway.net  You can email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it