The idea is as straightforward as it sounds: “The Pupcracker” is a holiday benefit performance produced by Intermountain Therapy Animals. It’s the story of “The Nutcracker” ballet, performed by some 30 costumed dogs, with onstage assists from their trainers.
The show features therapy dogs and guests who want to show off their doggie-freestyle maneuvers, says Kathy Klotz, executive director of the Utah agency that matches animals with human needs. The Utah group launched the show last year after seeing clips of a Chicago agency’s performances of “The Pupcracker” posted on YouTube.
The Utah benefit raised more than $10,000 last year; this year, with an additional performance and an updated script, the agency hopes to raise more.
Ticketholders are invited to the lobby after the show for “pupcorn” and to receive the performers’ “pawtographs” on their playbill. “The dogs are so well-trained,” says Jackie Byrd, of Park City, who attended last year’s show at the invitation of her daughter, who works for the agency. “It was just so different than anything you might see.”
Making it work is director Colleen Baum, who serves as the agency’s volunteer coordinator in her day job and moonlights as a professional actor.
“What’s fun about it for me is watching people enjoy the dogs,” says Baum, who jumped at the chance to join her two passions. “Yes, they’re enjoying theater, but they’re also getting therapy by watching these dogs with their trainers. And what therapy dogs are best at is making you smile.”
To write the script, Baum worked with Charles Lynn Frost, the actor who portrays local personality Sister Dottie Dixon. “I was very realistic in thinking about all the dogs we had to work with,” Baum says. “If you’re a fan of dogs, the story is really fun and not as long.”
The show is performed to the classic Tchaikovsky score and features familiar characters, such as Clara Dog (Diva), a golden retriever and a yellow Labrador mix, paired with a handsome Prince (Jack), also a yellow Lab, plus Sugar Pooch fairy (Bodhi), a boxer.
As Clara, Diva shows the characteristics of her breed, which translates to not expressing much onstage emotion in her scenes with the prince. This prompted one of narrator Sister Dottie’s best lines last year: “Girl, he’s cute, and he’s frisky, and you’re not getting any younger.”
Some dogs are wearing costumes, most of which involve colorful collars. Other dogs declined the costumes, or as Baum says, “preferred to show off their natural coats and colors.” Set pieces include familiar elements borrowed from “The Nutcracker,” such as the Christmas tree and clock, all decorated with paw prints or dog biscuits.
At one point during the dream sequence, Sister Dottie dons gold lamé suspenders to hold up the giant, garish skirt of Mother Ruffoon. The scene includes eight bounding basset hounds, several of whom are trained therapy dogs, all rescued by Utah Friends of Basset Hounds. “When they start to run through your legs, you’ve got to be holding on, or you’re going to be down for the count,” says Frost, who portrays Utah’s most famous Mormon mother of a gay son. Sister Dottie is also the granddogmother of Javier, her son’s Chihuahua.
Last year, the basset hounds portrayed union members who threatened a strike. This year, they’re part of the canine Mafia. After all, the breed is a little slow, and not particularly known for dancing skills, so the canine performers have to draw upon their mob connections to pressure Sister Dottie to be included in the show.
Frost says Sister Dottie’s appearance breaks the most basic actor’s rule about how not to be upstaged: Never share the stage with dogs or children. Also a challenge with a four-legged cast: Each performance becomes an improvisation.
“They practice a routine, and if that night the dog doesn’t want to cooperate, we go with the flow,” Baum says. “It’s great fun to see what the dogs come up with. Sometimes they want to run out into the audience, because they are therapy dogs and they want to greet people.”
Adds Frost: “I have a lot of spontaneous lines, which is when I have the most fun as Sister Dottie.”
‘The Pupcracker: A canine Christmas’
P The holiday benefit, performed by trained therapy dogs, follows the outline of “The Nutcracker” and is narrated by Sister Dottie S. Dixon. Proceeds benefit the Intermountain Therapy Animals.
When • Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 28-29, 2:30 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s black box theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18-$24 at arttix.org or 801-355-2787; $10 for children above 3, at 801-355-2787