By Karen Isaacs
Warning: If heart-warming stories featuring kids and dogs make you nauseated, if your friends call you “Scrooge”, if you have never cried at a movie, if you believe you are sophisticated, cynical or otherwise, then stay away from Because of Winn Dixie now at Goodspeed through Thursday, Sept. 5.
For all the rest of you – especially if you have kids or grandkids –rush and buy tickets now!
This is a delightful show. Is it perfect? No, but this the show is still being honed. In fact one song was replaced already.
The musical features book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin who wrote Mean Girls, Legally Blonde and other shows and music by Duncan Sheik who won a Tony for Spring Awakening. It is based on a young adult novel by Kate DiCamillo which became a film in 2005.
While the show has had some regional productions, this production at Goodspeed is obviously hoping to catch the interest of Broadway producers.
Opal is a 13-year old girl plopped down in an Alabama small town when her traveling preacher father is called there. The same day she finds a large, stray dog and names him Winn Dixie (for the supermarket where she found him) and bring him home. Her father is reluctant, but agrees conditionally to let the dog stay.
As the new kid in town, Opal is lonely and it is Winn Dixie who helps her make friends with brothers Dunlap and Stevie Dewberry, Sweetie Pie Thomas and Amanda Wilkinson. But she does much more than that; Opal makes friends with many of the adults who have been ostracized by the town: Otis, who runs the pet store and had been jail; Gloria Dump who is viewed as “a witch”, and the librarian, Fanny Block. When Winn Dixie runs away during a thunder storm, the town coalesces to find him.
But the dog and the community have an effect on Opal’s dad, the preacher who is still walled off due to his wife’s leaving.
So how does one dog to all this? By being what every dog is. Friendly, constant, loving no matter what. A non-judgmental friend who knows when to let you hug them.
Bowdie, who is described as part poodle and part a very large dog, is really one of the main characters – if not the star of the show. He’s been trained by Bill Berloni, the noted animal trainer who rescued the original Sandy for the musical Annie from a Connecticut shelter. Bowdie, an experienced performer, is in practically every scene and doesn’t make a false move.
But a dog, even Bowdie, doesn’t make the show. Goodspeed, and director John Rando has an outstanding cast, beginning with Josie Todd as Opal. She may look a little young for thirteen (though I’m told she is that age), but she interacts with both the dog and the humans in believable way. Plus, she has a fine voice.
Robert Spencer as her father, the Preacher, balances the guarded man, the lonely man and the disciplinarian well. He effectively puts over the songs, “Raise Your Voice,” “Thirteen Things” and “Sulking” – a funny song about preteens.
One of my favorite performances was David Poe as Otis, the outcast pet store owner. Poe’s voice has a country/western/folk tinge that fits the character. Roz Ryan almost stops the show with “Bottle Tree Blues” as Gloria Dump, the outcast the kids view as a witch.
My one major complaint is that Isabel Keating as Fanny Block, the librarian does not have a song. I know that she, too, has fine voice.
The other kids in the cast: Jay Hendrix as Stevie Dewberry, Jamie Mann as Dunlap Dewberry, Sophia Massa as Sweetie Pie Thomas and Choloë Cheers as the bookworm Amanda, are all fine. None cross over the line and become too cute.
The lighting by Jeff Croiter is outstanding, especially, Gloria’s tree full of bottles. The lighting and the projections by Olivia Sebesky aid scenic design by Donyale Werle truly set the scene for us. Emily Rebholz’s costumes capture the rural down south look.
With any newer show – direction is important. Here John Rando as the director and Adam Souza as the music director have done excellent work. The pace keeps moving and what choreography there is by Chris Bailey – don’t expect big tap numbers – fits the mood of the show.
I’d see Because of Winn Dixie again. Sometimes you just need a show that combines sweetness and hope and that shows our better sides.
For tickets visit Goodspeed Musicalsor call 860-873-8668
This content courtesy of Shore Publicatins and zip06.com.