Meet Little Orphan Sandy: From death row to national applause

Photos from the national touring production of ‘Annie’, coming to the Buell Theatre from April 29 through May 10. Photos by Joan Marcus.
Pictured below right are Issie Swickle, who plays Annie, and a dog named Sunny who plays Sandy.

By Sheryl Flatow

The adorable, sad-eyed terrier mix playing Sandy in the national tour of Annie is Sunny, a 4-year-old rescue dog who was named by her trainer, Tony Award honoree William Berloni, after the lyric “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” Like her character in the beloved musical, the canine went from a hard-knock life to sunny tomorrows. But when Berloni found her, she had just one tomorrow remaining: she was only a day away from euthanasia.

Issie Swickle as Annie and Sunny as Sandy. Photo by Joan Marcus.Berloni came across Sunny when he was looking for a dog to play Sandy in the 2012 Broadway production. He already had two candidates and was asked to find a third. He saw an online photo of Bruno — the dog had been misidentified as male — at a Houston shelter on a Friday and called to ask if he could come to see her on Monday. He was told she was scheduled to be put down on Saturday.

“The thing about my job is I connect with someone, whether it’s online or in person, and if I don’t take them, they sometimes die,” Berloni says. “A trainer who used to work with me was living in Houston and I said, ‘Go over and see the dog, and if she’s sweet pull her and we’ll get her to New York and find her a home.’ It was less about the dog being a candidate for the show than it was about saving her life. It wasn’t until I temperament tested her — saw that she was friendly, and learned her aggression triggers and how she deals with stress — that I told the show we had one more candidate.”

She got the role, making her the tour’s lone holdover from Broadway. In fact, Sunny aside, the touring version is based not on the recent revival, but the original 1977 production. The show visits Denver’s Buell Theatre from April 29 through May 10.

Martin Charnin, the show’s lyricist and original director, is again directing the musical, which has a book by Thomas Meehan and music by Charles Strouse. The choreographer is Liza Gennaro, who has incorporated selections of her father Peter Gennaro’s original dances. The new design is by Beowulf Boritt (set), Suzy Benzinger (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting).

Berloni, who has trained animals for 19 Broadway productions, as well as television and film, owes his career to Annie. He was an aspiring 19-year-old actor when he was asked to find and train a dog to play Sandy at the Goodspeed Opera House, where the show was first produced.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. So he trained the dog purely by instinct, which became the basis of the methodology he continues to use. “It’s really more of a life philosophy than a training philosophy. It’s taking the time to understand someone else’s feelings and language, as opposed to assuming they should understand yours. You take a dog who’s happy, friendly, likes people, and deals with stress, teach them some behaviors where there’s a cookie involved at the end, and they’ll do what you want eight times a week.”

Berloni works only with rescue animals and estimates that he’s saved some 400 dogs over the years. When the animals aren’t performing, they live with Berloni, his wife and daughter on their Connecticut farm. “We currently own 25 dogs,” he says. “They’re either actors in training, working actors, or retired actors. We also have a couple of horses and pigs, a llama, a donkey, a pony, two cats and a macaw. The dogs reside in special wings of our home; it’s a communal living situation. They pay the mortgage, so I figure they should have luxury accommodations.”

Reprinted from Playbill® Magazine, October 2014. PLAYBILL® is a registered trademark of Playbill Incorporated, N.Y.C. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

From left: Isabel Wallach as Duffy, Lilly Mae Stewart as Molly, LillyBea Ireland as Tessie, Issie Swickle as Annie, Angelina Carballo as July, Sydney Shuck as Kate and Adia Dant as Pepper. Photo by Joan Marcus.

From left: Isabel Wallach as Duffy, Lilly Mae Stewart as Molly, LillyBea Ireland as Tessie, Issie Swickle as Annie, Angelina Carballo as July, Sydney Shuck as Kate and Adia Dant as Pepper. Photo by Joan Marcus.

April 29 through May 10
Buell Theatre
ASL interpreted, Audio described & Open Captioned performance: May 10, 2pm
Tickets: 303.893.4100 |
800.641.1222 | Groups (10+): 303.446.4829