While watching the rehearsals of the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company’s production of The Wizard of Oz, I was not sure how Cheeto, a 1-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix on a temporary work loan from the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), would perform as the iconic dog Toto. That was until Miss Almira Gulch (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West) ordered Dorothy’s Uncle Henry to take Toto away. As Uncle Henry reached in Cheeto growled and barked at him with the timing of a seasoned vet. Later on in the scene as Toto escaped and leaped back into Dorothy’s arms, it was clear that this little rescue puppy might just steal the spotlight in the company’s performance at Henderson Pavilion.
It was evident that a strong bond has already formed between Cheeto and Carly Richardson, who is not only taking on the lead role of Dorothy but is also acting as an amateur dog trainer to the adorable mutt. “We talked about [getting a professional dog trainer] but the dog has taken to this so well,” director Dan Decker says. “He answered to Toto almost immediately and she says ‘Toto come here’ and wherever he is he leaps up as high as he can and she catches him. She’s putting a lot of time in with him.” Richardson, a Green Valley High School graduate, has experience working with a four-legged co-star as she took on the same role in Southern Utah University’s production. She learned how to teach Toto from the professional trainer the school had hired, while also picking up a few tricks from online sites. Richardson has already taught Cheeto how to sit, lay down, stay and to speak and is now working on using nonverbal hand signals.
“I just noticed that he was really smart,” says Richardson, who knew after seeing three dogs that Cheeto was the one. “Well, he was definitely the cutest. I went with my director [to the SPCA] and we talked to the workers there and we said we wanted someone who was small, didn’t weigh a lot, was more of a follower than a leader and one who got along with change.” “He just bonded with her immediately,” Decker says. “He doesn’t let her out of his sight. He’s just happy to live in her arms and in her lap. The hardest part so far is when they’re captured by the witch, [Dorothy] says ‘run Toto, run’ and the dog has to run off stage, but the Cheeto won’t leave her side.”
Decker said that if this performance with the dog goes well, they will continue to incorporate dogs into their shows. “You know, Shakespeare always had a dog in his plays, and people just love it when the dog is up there,” Decker says. “So if this experience goes well we might put a dog in our next production, Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Richardson knows that not only her talents as an actor but also as a trainer will be front and center when they enter center stage, but she isn’t worried. “He’s really cute and audiences love cute right?” Richardson says. “He’s just really fun, he’s really animated, and he barks a lot, especially at loud noises. He has a couple good moments. … He’s going to steal the show.”
Performances are 8 p.m. May 13-14, 4 p.m. May 15th, 8 p.m. May 21, 4 p.m. May 22, at the Henderson Pavilion, (200 S. Green Valley Parkway). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at HendersonLive.com or by phone at 267-4849.