Performing Arts

KC-area shelter dogs get a little ‘Romance’ from celebrities starring at New Theatre

Actor Charlie Robinson admits this is the first interview he’s ever done while a stranger sits on his lap.

The stranger’s name is Laura. She’s a 3-year-old Maltese mix who weighs about 8 pounds.

“It’s like she’s known me for years,” says Robinson, a veteran character actor most recognized for his eight seasons on NBC’s “Night Court.”

“She doesn’t want to leave me. … Earlier when I was holding her, she was just shaking. Now she’s like, ‘Don’t go back to L.A. If you do, you got to take with me with you!’”

That’s exactly why Robinson spent Friday touring Great Plains SPCA Pet Adoption Center in Merriam, a nonprofit helping animals in the KC area. Robinson and co-star Michael Learned (“The Waltons”) are headlining “The Last Romance” at the New Theatre Restaurant. After every evening and Sunday matinee performance, a volunteer with Great Plains will bring one of the shelter dogs onstage, where the actors introduce it to the audience. If anyone picks the pooch, the theater will pay 40 percent of the adoption fees.

“Yeah, I’m a dog person,” says Robinson, looking fit and muscular at 73 in a black T-shirt and wearing a Grove City College ball cap.

He confesses to being upstaged before by a canine when doing a play in California called “My Wandering Boy.”

“The dog would walk off the stage on my line, and the place would go crazy. They didn’t even hear what I was saying,” he recalls.

michael learned2.jpg
Michael Learned returns to the New Theatre Restaurant for “The Last Romance.” New Theatre

“The Last Romance” may pose a similar predicament.

Learned’s Chihuahua, Penny, makes her theatrical debut in the romantic comedy, filling a key role in this puppy-centric production.

“I got Penny from our next door neighbor,” Learned says as Penny licks her hand. “My neighbors moved to New Zealand, and they could only take one dog. They had three — one went to rescue. Penny came to us … so she’s been with us now for five years, and it’s a love match.”

Learned, 80, is best known for her eight seasons portraying matriarch Olivia Walton on the CBS hit drama “The Waltons,” a role that earned her three Emmys. (She earned a fourth for “Nurse.” In fact, she shares the record with Tyne Daly for most wins in the category of lead actress in a drama series.)

In “The Last Romance,” Robinson plays Ralph, an 80-year-old widower who quelled his youthful ambition of singing opera to get married. Then Ralph spots Carol (Learned) walking her dog at a local park and he realizes there may be room for more love in his life. The play is by Joe DiPietro, who won a Tony Award for “Memphis.” “The Last Romance” actually had its world premiere at New Theatre in 2008, starring real-life couple Marion Ross and Paul Michael.

“What’s beautiful about this is that it’s for an older couple,” Robinson says.

“You get to a point in your life where you lose loved ones. And you have to figure out a way to go on. That’s what I am finding so wonderful about this piece because the one thing that concerns us all is being alone when the family is gone. … This play gives the audience an opportunity to see that they are not alone.”

Like many American males in the 1970s, Robinson found himself smitten with Learned, whose earthy performance on “The Waltons” was a ubiquitous part of the decade.

“Oh yes, I did watch that show, and I was so much in love with her. That’s why it was so delightful to be able to work with her. She’s such a beautiful person and a hard-working person,” he says.

driving miss daisy 2
Michael Learned and Charlie Robinson met two years ago when they starred in the New Theatre's production of "Driving Miss Daisy." Roy Inman

The pair met two years ago when performing the leads in New Theatre’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

“What was interesting as ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ went on, this incredible relationship they had — her chauffeur and him — was almost like they were married. You know, the way they talk to each other. They’d been together for so long,” he says.

“But (‘The Last Romance’) is about a man who is pursuing her. And she is fighting it, even though she wants to be a part of his life. ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ is like a marriage that had gone on for years. They loved each other, but they were not in love. These two are in love.”

Learned sees more similarities than differences in these two character-driven plays.

“It’s easy to fall in love with Charlie,” she says. “He’s so charming and warm and good. In that sense, it’s the same. In fact one of our understudies said, ‘You know, this is like Chapter 2. In “Driving Miss Daisy,” they want you to get together, and this play you do. Sort of.’”

Their theatrical run at New Theatre in 2017 introduced the performers to Kansas City. Robinson says he became enamored with the taste of Jack Stack Barbecue. (He reveals that the theater sends him a box filled with the restaurant’s specialties every Christmas.) He’s hoping during this trip to finally visit Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“I just absolutely love working here,” he confesses.

“People are so wonderful. I’ve worked at a lot of theaters all over the country. And this is one of the best in how they treat you and how they make sure you’re comfortable. And so you try to do your best work.”

Learned adds that she loves spending time on the Country Club Plaza.

“It’s so charming, and the restaurants are fabulous,” she says. “I keep hoping to lose weight, but it doesn’t happen. I have lunch at the Bristol (in Leawood). And our wonderful artistic directors are feeding us like crazy — they even send over steaks from Sullivan’s, which are really delicious. I have to fight Penny off.”

Secondary photo KCM_NewTheatre091319JAT071F
"Earlier when I was holding her, she was just shaking," actor Charlie Robins says of Laura, a Maltese mix at Great Plains SPCA. "Now she’s like, ‘Don’t go back to L.A. If you do, you got to take with me with you!’” Jill Toyoshiba

While Penny may be appreciating the spoils of a steak diet, not every dog that will take the stage has enjoyed such treatment.

Laura, for instance, came to the shelter as part of an “extreme hoarding situation,” according to Great Plains CEO Tam Singer. Laura was among 100 dogs living in cages at a single private residence before being recently rescued.

“It’s an honor to have been asked to participate in a truly rare and incredible opportunity that combines the arts with a social cause,” says Singer, whose organization can house up to 75 dogs and 125 cats. “To be able night after night to showcase one of our beloved homeless dogs, to help raise awareness of the plight of shelter animals and to ultimately find them each their forever home is priceless.”

So what is the audience to take away from “The Last Romance” and Great Plains SPCA collaboration?

“It’s never too late,” Learned says.

“Life goes on after a certain age. You don’t have to give up. This character is 79 years old, and she falls in love — at the end of her life — and I hear that happens often. In old people’s homes, people fall in love. So it ain’t over till it’s really over.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

On stage

“The Last Romance,” starring Michael Learned and Charlie Robinson, continues through Nov. 17 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. See or call 913-649-7469

After every evening and Sunday matinee performance, a representative from Great Plains SPCA will bring a shelter dog onto the stage. New Theatre will pay a portion of the adoption fees.

Related stories from Kansas City Star