Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Review of "Because of Winn Dixie"

The last time the Goodspeed Opera House produced a musical with a little girl and her lovable dog was a show called Annie.  The production moved to Broadway, won a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is still one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.  While the theater’s current production, Because of Winn Dixie, is not of the same caliber as Annie, it does share one essential trait of being a wholesome and entertaining family musical.
Bowdie and Josie Todd in Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Based on the award-winning young adult book, the show centers on Opal (Josie Todd), a 12-year-old girl and her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer), who have moved to a small town to start their lives anew.  Her mother has left her father, she is lonely and the motel they moved into is in total disarray.  By sheer happenstance she befriends a very large dog while shopping at the local Winn Dixie grocery store (hence, the pooch’s name).  The two become inseparable and fast friends as they create havoc in town but, more importantly, through their machinations help disparate towns folk come together, confront their personal demons and heal.

The book of the show by Nell Benjamin is warm-hearted and mostly enchanting primarily because of the appeal of Opal and Winn Dixie.  The strength of the libretto centers on providing depth to the secondary characters, giving a fullness to the production.  The loose ends and dramatic arcs do come to a quick and gratifying conclusion, which for a family show isn’t necessarily bad.  Adult members of the audience might roll their eyes with the overly feel good ending, but is walking out of a theater smiling such a bad thing?
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The score by Duncan Sheik and Nell Benjamin is tuneful and encompasses a number of various genres and styles.  They resonate with an emotional core that enlivens the production while, at the same time, effectively bringing out the back story of each character.

The star of the musical is Bowdie, a dog described in the program as a “cross between a poodle and something large.”  This sizeable canine is an integral part of the cast, never misses a cue and is absolutely adorable.  Sometimes you sit in amazement at what the dog does on stage.  Kudos to long-time trainer Bill Berloni who, incidentally, got his start by training the original Sandy the dog in Goodspeed’s Annie.   
The kids in the cast of Because of Winn DixiePhoto Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Josie Todd is an engaging young performer who brings enthusiasm and pluck to the role of Opal.  J. Robert Spencer delivers a winning portrayal of a father torn between his preaching duties and the emotional fortitude needed in bringing up his young daughter.  Roz Ryan gives an honest and lively performance as the town pariah, Gloria Dump.   David Poe as the eccentric, troubled pet center proprietor, Otis, is satisfying in a one-dimensional role, but he possesses a haunting troubadour delivery in his solo numbers.  The other children in the musical – Chloe Cheers (Amanda), Jamie Mann (Dunlap Dewberry), Jay Hendrix (Stevie Dewberry), and Sophia Massa (Sweetie Pie Thomas) - are charming and spunky. 
The cast of Because of Winn Dixie. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director John Rando successfully builds a musical on the back of a very large dog and his young owner.  It is a very fine line to tread—creating an affectionate and feel good story that is not overly sentimental and schmaltzy.  He keeps the pacing of the show brisk, even when interludes of reflection and song momentarily slow down the action.  Rando strategically utilizes choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance numbers to provide a more well-rounded musical experience.

The minimal scenic design and set pieces by Donyale Werle are sufficient to help carry the story forward.  Jeff Croiter’s lighting design helps add an affecting depth to the show.

Because of Winn Dixie, a perfect family musical for these last days of summer.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 5th.

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