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.
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.