BY: BRIAN VANOCHTEN
PHOTOGRAPHY: IAN ANDERSON
GRAND RAPIDS – The spotlight will shine brightest on 19-year-old Breighanna Minnema when the curtain goes up later this month for Grand Rapids Civic Theatre‘s performance of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Her infectious smile, bubbling personality and, of course, stunning head-to-toe pink outfit are all sure to have the audience buzzing each night throughout its run May 31 through June 16.
It’ll all change when her four-legged co-stars make their bold entrances.
Minnema, who plays Elle Woods in the lead role, fully understands the audience is going to forget all about her whenever Cszar the Chihuahua or Jake the Great Dane commands the spotlight on stage.
“I’m just excited to see the audience’s reaction when we get on stage. The dogs are show stealers,” Minnema said. “You can sing as well as you want and dance as well as you want, but as soon as the dogs come out on that stage, they steal the show. Having a chance to create a relationship with the dogs, I love that.”
It is part of a special collaboration with the Humane Society of West Michigan.
The opening night of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” on Friday, May 31, at the Civic Theatre, 30 N. Division Ave., is designed to help place abandoned dogs, cats and other small critters in forever homes. The theatre lobby will serve as the hub of the Human Society’s adopt-a-pet program for a night.
The adoption fees will be reduced to $50 per dog, name your price for a kitten or cat, and theatre patrons can pick out their new pets and are able to pick them up Saturday, June 1, after enjoying the show.
The Humane Society of West Michigan handled 1,700 pet adoptions last year.
“It is a wonderful show and what the dogs bring to the show is wonderful,” said Theatre Director Bruce Tinker, who also is directing “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and looking forward to the interaction between Minnema and the dogs. “Our family has four animals from this shelter – two cats and two dogs. I know how important that is. It doesn’t matter what they look like, a dog will come into your home and love you.
“It’s what the story in the musical is all about: You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The story of Elle Woods persevering to overcome her bombshell blonde stereotype – from the shopping mall to graduating at the top of her class at Harvard law School, has been well chronicled on film and the Broadway stage. It’s a character Minnema can’t wait to unleash – with some help from her furry friends.
“Who doesn’t want to wear pink from head to toe? Elle Woods is a role model for me,” Minnema, 19, of East Grand Rapids, said. “She always believes in herself. She becomes valedictorian at the end of the movie.
“It’s really just a story of never losing faith in yourself.”
Her canine co-stars couldn’t be more different in terms of size or character.
Cszar, who has been cast as Bruiser, is a diminutive 2-year-old with endless energy. His owner, Dante Alighire, responded to an ad placed on Craigslist for an unwanted pet and never expected to find himself a star.
“I got him on Craigslist. I’ve had him since he was 10 weeks old. He was in a milk crate,” Alighire said. “He likes to ride on my shoulders wherever we go. He has great balance. He just started doing that one day. He hasn’t stopped.”
Initially, there were problems filling the Bruiser role.
“We were looking to cast the role of Bruiser and we were having a really hard time finding a Chihuahua,” said Nancy Brozek, director of development and community relations for Civic Theatre. “One day, I look out the window and I see this man walking down Monroe Mall with a Chihuahua on his shoulders. I turned to Bruce and said, ‘What should I do?’ He said, ‘Go get him.’ The rest is history.”
Jake, who has been cast as Rufus, is a black stallion who belongs to stage manager Chris Carnevale. The dog is the size of a small horse. The pet’s manner is so mild, he’s no match for the uber-social Cszar.
Originally, the role of Rufus was supposed to be played by a bulldog.
“We had three bulldogs lined up, but, one-by-one, they all dropped out,” Carnevale said. “So, the director turns to me one day and says, ‘We’re using your dog.’ So, that’s how Jake ended up getting cast in it.”
Tinker thinks the contrast between Bruiser and Rufus should be a huge hit.
It should provide unexpected challenges, however, since both Cszar and Jake, who’re just beginning to feel comfortable with Minnema and other cast members, will be making their live debuts on stage.
“The thing with working with animals is they have to feel safe in their environment,” Tinker explained. “Every animal is a little different. Everything can be new to them every night. New people. New smells. The script is written so they’ll both be on leashes. The good news is that Rufus and Bruiser never have to share the stage.
“It’s part of the show and we all love animals.”
Minnema, a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School, is no stranger to man’s best friend. She has two dogs at home, a golden retriever that’s hers and German Shepherd that belongs to her parents.
“I’m a big-dog girl,” she said with a laugh.
The prospect of sharing the stage with both Cszar and Jake just makes her smile. She is as comfortable controlling a dog on a leash as slipping into her pink costume and slipping into character as Elle Woods.
“It helps,” she said of being a lifelong dog lover. “My senior year in high school, I was in ‘Annie,’ so it’s not my first time working with dogs. I’m really looking forward to being up there with them both.”
To adopt a pet, contact the Humane Society of West Michigan, 3077 Wilson Dr. NW, at (616) 453-8900 or www.hswestmi.org. The facility is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.