×

Regional Theater Review: ‘Because of Winn Dixie,’ the Musical

With:
Bowdie, Josie Todd, J. Robert Spencer, David Poe, Roz Ryan, Isabel Keating, Chloe Cheers, Jamie Mann, Jay Hendrix, Nicolle Powell, John Edwards, Sophia Massa, Kacie Sheik, Ryan Halsaver, Brian Michael Hoffman, Crystal Kellogg, Mackenzie Warren.

2 hours 20 minutes

Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up.

But “Winn Dixie,” based on a prize-winning 2000 children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo, is a gentler sort of tale — and show — compared to the showbiz pizazz of the 1976 hit “Annie.” The charms of this show (now having its fourth regional outing in six years) are easy-going, its storytelling homespun and its scope intimate. 

It’s a cozy show distinguished by a well-crafted book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (lyricist of “Mean Girls” and “Legally Blonde”) and beguiling melodies by Duncan Sheik — his third show on the boards in less than six months following Off Broadway’s “Alice By Heart” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Like “Bees,” Sheik creates a musical world that taps into the Southern traditions of gospel, hymns, country sounds, blues and folk — with a touch of Broadway, too.

This musical soundscape is fitting for the story of an earnest preacher (J. Robert Spencer) who arrives at a small Florida town with his 13-year-old daughter, Opal (Josie Todd), who is uncertain why her mother walked out on the family years earlier and challenged by her father’s unwillingness to talk about it.

Popular on Variety

Adopting a stray dog that she names after the grocery store where they met, she finds the canine has a way to connect to others, too, especially those who feel lost, lonely or unloved. That includes Otis, a music-loving pet store owner who spent time in jail (singer-songwriter David Poe; wonderful); Gloria, an eccentric loner with a drinking past (Roz Ryan); a sympathetic librarian (Isabel Keating); Amanda, a young girl harboring a terrible guilt (Chloe Cheers); and a trio of scene-stealing youngsters (Jay Hendrix, Sophia Massa and especially Jamie Mann, in an assured, natural performance).

Benjamin tries with some success to offset the sentimental set-up and narrative by including dialogue with some kid-smart snap, expanding the book to include scenes with parental POV, and touching on — albeit lightly — darker themes of alcoholism, abandonment and trauma.

Best of all, there’s mutt Bowdie, who is described as a cross between “a poodle and something large.” Bowdie survived “Peter Pan Live” and starred in a memorable episode of “High Maintenance,” but here he takes on the largest stage role ever for an animal, showing off a different set of skills in every scene where the tale wags the dog. Guided by animal director William Berloni, Bowdie pretty much carries the show with natural charisma and a big lug of a face that’s impossible not to love.

Todd’s likable Opal has the right attitude and appeal for a rescue kid, though pitch and articulation issues sometime limit her songs’ connections. Spencer (“Next to Normal”) balances his character as a sincere person of faith with the realities of being a mortal man and parent, while Ryan is terrific as neighbor Gloria, nailing the number “Bottle True Blues” with a big down-home style that gives the show a powerful boost.

The overall production itself, however, is spotty, with a staging by John Rando — in his second go-round with the material — that is too often awkward, flat or perfunctory and misses the mark for emotional payoff at the end. The set design, while lovely at first with the creeping kudzu, falls far short of the multiple-scene challenges. And some book elements are still not comfortable fits. (The “Gone with the Wind” bit is squirmy, and a possible love interest for the preacher is clunky.)

Like the 2005 film version of the book that starred Jeff Daniels in a kind of paternal warm-up to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the musical should appeal to the family crowd. A future life for the show is likely, at least wherever the market attracts audiences that are drawn to sentimental uplift  — not to mention pooches with irresistible pusses.

Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Conn.; 395 seats: $79 top. Opened, reviewed July 17, 2019. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MINS.

Production: Directed by John Rando; choreography, Chris Bailey; animal direction, William Berloni; set, Donyale Werle; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Jeff Croiter; projections, Olivia Sebesky; sound, Jay Hilton; music direction, Adam Souza; music supervision and orchestrations, Jason Hart; production stage manager, Bradley G. Spachman; production manager, Erica Gilroy.

Creative: A Goodspeed Musicals presentation in association with Dorothy Berloni, Scott Landis and Bud Martin of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik, based on the novel by  Kate DiCamillo.

Cast: Bowdie, Josie Todd, J. Robert Spencer, David Poe, Roz Ryan, Isabel Keating, Chloe Cheers, Jamie Mann, Jay Hendrix, Nicolle Powell, John Edwards, Sophia Massa, Kacie Sheik, Ryan Halsaver, Brian Michael Hoffman, Crystal Kellogg, Mackenzie Warren.

More Legit

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

  • 'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With

    'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Zawe Ashton has signed with CAA, Variety has learned. Most recently seen on Broadway in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betryal,” Ashton is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. In addition to being an in-demand actress, Ashton is a director, playwright and author. While earning critical raves for “Betrayal,” Ashton made her debut as a [...]

  • Michael Feinstein Kristin Chenoweth Sutton Foster

    Jerry Herman Memorial Set for Feb. 3 at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

    A memorial service for Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Michael Feinstein is producing the tribute, which will feature performances from a number of notable legit stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Angela [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content