BWW Review: BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE at GoodspeedOpera House
There's an old saying from W.C. Fields that says "Never work with animals or children". This quote is often assumed to mean that a performer should avoid this, as children and animals can be quite unpredictable and/or unreliable. But based on what I saw on stage during Goodspeed Musicals' latest production of the new musical BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE, I think W.C. Fields may have issued this warning because said animals and children just might steal the show right out from under you. In its second production of the season, Goodspeed has opted to mount a relatively new work and introduce audiences to the heartwarming story of two "Strays", a girl and her dog, on the very same stage where another girl and her dog (ANNIE) premiered 43 years ago. The result? A touching musical that delivers an important message delivered by a strong cast led (yes, led) by an extremely loveable (and talented) canine.
BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE, based on the book by Kate DiCamillo (which was also made into a 2005 film) tells the story of a young girl Opal (Josie Todd) who moves into a small town in Florida with her father, Preacher (J. Robert Spencer). Opal's mother has recently left them and they are trying to pick up the pieces and move on. Enter a stray dog (Bowdie) who Opal meets at (yes, you guessed it) the Winn-Dixie and the two become quickly inseparable. After some pleading with her father, Winn Dixie is allowed to stay and quickly begins to transform both Opal's life, and the townsfolk of Naomi, Florida. Because of Winn Dixie, Opal makes new friends in the Dewberry boys, Dunlap (Jamie Mann) and Stevie (Jay Hendrix), bookish Amanda (Chloe Cheers), and precious, little Sweetie Pie (Sophia Massa). Winn Dixie, with the children in tow, cross paths with many other new friends - grown-ups with real-life issues like the "Crazy Pet Store Man", Otis (David Poe), the neighborhood "witch", Gloria (Roz Ryan), and the librarian, Franny (Isabel Keating) - but people whom this motley crew is able to impact in positive ways. One fateful night Winn Dixie goes missing, bringing out the whole town to help find him and, in doing so, build bridges and heal old wounds.
Goodspeed's production of BEACAUSE OF WINN DIXIE is a fresh, heartwarming and entertaining evening at the theatre. Duncan Sheik's (SPRING AWAKENING) music employs a mix of styles, appropriate for the setting - from church music ("Raise Your Voice, O Lord of Pilgrims"), to folk songs ("Searchin", "You Can't Run") to the blues, Mr. Sheik delivers a score that is tuneful and uplifting. Nell Benjamin's lyrics and book are extremely effective in moving the story along, though the dialogue occasionally steps into Hallmark movie territory. Overall, there are some very nice moments, especially in the moments where Opal meets some of her new friends, and in the more emotional and real scenes with her father.
John Rando's direction and vision for the show is solid and he uses his small, but effective cast quite well. Mr. Rando also understands that much of the audience will be there for the dog, so he maximizes every moment Bowdie is on stage to extreme effect. Speaking of Bowdie, as the title character, this dog is fantastic. He never misses a cue and performs some great tricks (including one rainstorm scene that elicited applause). He is believable, and unbelievably cute making for a great experience all around. The rest of the cast (the two-legged variety) is equally great. Josie Todd is energetic and exciting to watch as Opal, and J. Robert Spencer conveys the conflict and frustration of her father quite effectively. Roz Ryan, who, unfortunately is only on stage for a few pivotal scenes, shows off her bold and beautiful voice as Gloria, and David Poe is subtle, secretive and solid as Otis. The rest of the cast, including the extremely talented other young performers, give strong performances all around.
In terms of creative, Donyale Werle's set is simple, but effective. The large tree that is the focal point is realistic and beautiful. It is brought to life by Olivia Sebesky's projections, which create subtle movement in the leaves and a realistic rain storm. Other projections, however, such as select lyrics on the wall and in the sky distracted a bit for this reviewer. Jeff Croiter's lighting and Jay Hilton's sound designs elevate the realistic setting even further, and Emily Reibholz' contemporary costumes fit the setting well. Chris Bailey's choreography is subtle but effective, and Adam Souza's musical direction is also very good.
Overall, Goodspeed's production of BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE is an entertaining, engaging, and uplifting story told with a solid score by a talented cast (including one particularly talented dog.) And the fact that you likely haven't seen it before gives you the rare chance to discover a new musical completely in the comfort of the beautiful Goodspeed Opera House.
BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through September 5, 2019. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.
Top photo: The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Because of Winn Dixie, extended by popular demand through September 5 at The Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Mid photo 1: Roz Ryan as Gloria Dump with Jay Hendrix, Jaime Mann, Josie Todd and Sophia Massa of Goodspeed Musicals' Because of Winn Dixie, extended by popular demand through September 5 at The Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Mid photo 2: The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Because of Winn Dixie, extended by popular demand through September 5 at The Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.