PLEASANT HILL -- It's typical to hear the sounds of singing at the Old Firehouse on Oak Park Boulevard in Pleasant Hill.
But on a recent evening, amid the young voices arose sounds of barking. The young actors of Diablo Theatre Company Stars 2000's latest show, "Legally Blonde the Musical," have been thrilled to act alongside their canine counterparts.
When Chihuahuas Athena and Milton, who are double-cast for the role of Bruiser Woods, met that evening, there was incessant barking. But the Chihuahuas are rarely together in one rehearsal, said Kai Baines, who plays Elle Woods.
Kai, 16, said that Stars 2000 rehearsals have always been fun, but the dog actors add a new brand of harmony that bonds the cast even more.
"It has been a lot of fun," said Kai, who is double-cast in her role. "We each get to work with both dogs," she said, referring to Adria Swan with whom she shares the part of Elle Woods.
Kai said that having the canine actors around brought out all the animal lovers and "dog people" together.
"I'm such a dog person," said Kai, who has an Australian shepherd, a gift from "Santa" when she was 5 years old. "Athena is jumpy while Milton is more mellow."
The dogs' owners said they responded to a call for canine actors through a Times column by Joan Morris.
Dean Master, Athena's owner who has three Chihuahuas, said he picked the one with the best temperament to audition for the role. Bringing Athena to rehearsals has given him a chance to see youth theater in action.
"I've seen how hardworking these young actors are and what a positive environment this is," said Master. "They're good kids. Glad they can use our pooch."
Master said that initially Athena was not used to being around the hustle and bustle.
"She was terrified of the singing and dancing the first time," he said. "She had three hours of rehearsal; she needed the exposure. A couple of practices more and she'll be just fine. When she's had enough, she'll run back to me. She's a diva."
Bill Thompson and Patty Paton of Canyon found that someone anonymously posted the casting call for animal actors on their door.
"He's obviously very handsome," said Thompson of Milton, the Chihuahua-mix the couple adopted from the Oakland East Bay SPCA.
Added Paton, "He's playful and very affectionate. That's what captured my heart," adding that he thought auditions and rehearsals would be fun.
"He's very calm and likes to be held," Thompson said. "His role is to be held and be cute and he excels at that. He likes the attention."
The canine cast members perform well because their owners say the dogs look forward to a special reward -- dog treats.
Cindy and Neal Lee of Concord have captured their female English bulldog Bailey's interactions with her human cast members on film during rehearsals. Bailey, who plays Rufus, a male dog character, has bonded with the two young actresses who play Paulette, the Lees said.
Bailey's friendly and easygoing demeanor has endeared her to her cast mates, said Diane Kamrin, Stars 2000 musical director.
"She loves all the attention she gets from the kids," said Cindy Lee. "After I sent Bailey's photo to Diane (Kamrin), she said, 'Oh, I think I found my bulldog.'"
When Bailey was a puppy, she was used to being around children, said Lee.
"The music doesn't startle her at all," she said. "She perks up as if to say, 'What's going on?'"
"Bailey's pretty much done what they wanted her to do on cue," said Neal Lee.
One of the memorable scenes involving Rufus, aka Bailey, includes Paulette and Kyle, the UPS guy, meeting, and Paulette and Elle confronting Paulette's ex-boyfriend to get Rufus back.
While Shelby Stewart, who plays Paulette, admits she isn't a dog person, Stewart said she finds Bailey so likable that it's easy for her to get into character as a dog owner.
"Dogs are just as important as the human characters on the show because they have so much impact on their companions' lives," said Stewart, a theater performance major at Chapman University.
Laura Means, double-cast as Paulette, and Wes Enos, who plays the UPS guy, both say acting with dogs came naturally because of their love for the animals.
"I have been so excited to work with Bailey. I would bug Diane everyday about when Bailey would come to work with us," said Means, a student at Los Medanos College.
Enos, who will be a sophomore at USC, said that on the first day he met Bailey he was so eager to interact with her, chatting with her and feeding her treats that when the time came to rehearse the scene with Bailey, he forgot his lines.
"The lines did come back eventually," Enos laughed.
Stewart said that while the dogs add to the fun in rehearsals, the story of "Legally Blonde" is about self-discovery and realizing what's important. In the scene where Stewart is determined to get her dog back, Stewart said it wasn't difficult to find the emotions people get when they long for the one they love.
"The dogs are fun to have around," she said. "But the reunion scene between Paulette and her dog Rufus was very emotional."
WHO: Diablo Theatre Company STARS 2000
WHAT: "Legally Blonde" the musical
WHEN: July 26-Aug. 4
WHERE: Diablo Valley College Performing Arts Center, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill
INFORMATION: For tickets call 925-324-7359