Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle
Truth be told, I’m not a dog person. I didn’t grow up with one. I don’t have one now. I don’t stop to pet strangers’ dogs and generally steer clear of those weepy pet movies where pups are given cutesy anthropomorphic personalities. I think the last one I saw was “My Dog Skip” in the fourth grade. So, I’m not the type to flock to “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a new family musical (by Duncan Sheik & Nell Benjamin) whose star is a big, shaggy pooch.
But it delivered a solidly entertaining, if uneven, evening for both me and my theater-going companion. For a show about a 13-year-old Floridian from a single-parent household, I thought it’d be appropriate to bring along a 13-year-old Floridian from a single-parent household and luckily my cousin Lily fit those criteria and happened to be visiting. For the record, she’s a cat lover. But no matter where your animal allegiances are, “Winn Dixie” doesn’t coast on the antics of its canine star. Despite the title, the dog is mainly a supporting player, a particularly cute and fluffy MacGuffin.
Based on the best-selling middle-school staple by Kate DiCamillo, “Winn Dixie” is an uplifting tale about friendship and grief, told through the eyes of Opal (Josie Todd). She’s an independent (if altogether too bland) girl whose alcoholic mother abandoned the family, leaving her preacher dad (J. Robert Spencer) distant and overwhelmed. To start fresh, Opal and The Preacher move to a trailer park in the fictional town of Naomi, Florida. But the neighborhood kids are either unfriendly or mean and the adults seem to harbor scary secrets. One day at the local grocery store, she meets the dirty, lost title mutt and Opal is immediately smitten. As referenced in the clever and tuneful opening song, both are strays searching for a loving home. She takes Winn Dixie home and soon the dog begins to give her the self-confidence to meet new people around town. There’s pinch-faced bookworm Amanda Wilkinson (Chloe Cheers), the dim Dewberry brothers (Jay Hendrix & Jamie Mann) and candy-colored six-year-old Sweetie Pie Thomas (Sophia Massa). It’s not a spoiler to say they all eventually band together, Little Rascals-style, by the time intermission rolls around. Opal and Winn Dixie also make friends with stern librarian Franny Block (Isabel Keating), guitar-strumming pet shop worker Otis (David Poe) and reclusive Gloria Dump (Roz Ryan), a recovering alcoholic who the neighborhood kids think is a witch.
I firmly believe “Spring Awakening” is one of the best musicals of the 2000’s and while Duncan Sheik doesn’t replicate that level of brilliance here, he delivers an enjoyable, lively score steeped in Americana. He brings along some of his trademark melancholy chords but adds touches of blues, gospel and folk-rock. There are some beautiful melodies in songs like “Awoo” and it was nice to hear his songs filled with more straightforward lyrics (his frequent collaborator Steven Slater is much more poetic and opaque). Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde,” “Mean Girls”) has written some smart and honest lyrics with a few real touches of brilliance.
There’s not much plot in Benjamin’s script, although she does flesh out the narrative considerably from DiCamillo’s novel. Benjamin infuses the basic premise with a stronger narrative thrust, connecting dots DiCamillo only hints at, and brings more backstory to characters that felt one-note on the page. Yet she doesn’t go far enough. As the show inches closer to a New York premiere, I hope Benjamin digs even deeper. The bones are there, but characters like Otis and Gloria are not given the three-dimensional complexity they deserve. It doesn’t help that the casting throws the balance off, too. Singer-songwriter Poe lacks the acting chops or charisma to make Otis into a fully realized character yet is given lots to do while Ryan (of Broadway’s “Chicago”) is terrific but limited by a glib 16-bar blues number recounting her troubled youth and a few somber, underwritten scenes later on. You want their stage time reversed. Opal could be given a more distinct personality, as well. The role asks her to be alternatively sullen or spunky, without much in between. Todd is winsome but if her acting style veers too close to the Disney Channel, it’s fully understandable why.
Some supporting players are better matched with the material. Spencer (whose Tony-nominated turn in “Next To Normal” remains one of my favorite theatrical memories) hits all the rights notes. He imbues The Preacher with so much heart and finds the right balance between comically befuddled dad and genuinely wounded spouse. His reedy voice is perfectly suited for “Offer It Up,” one of the show’s standout numbers. Also stellar is Cheers, the strongest of “Winn Dixie’s” young actors. Both her and Spencer are the most successful at connecting emotionally with the material and the audience. Cheers is grounded and her singing voice is flawless, culminating in a truly memorable, heartbreaking ballad (“No One Watching”).
For many, the real star will be Bowdie, the canine thespian at “Winn Dixie’s” center. He is well trained by William Berloni and, as far as I know, hit all his specific marks. I greatly enjoyed how he cocked his head to peer at the audience every time we applauded, as if trying to figure out what in the world was going on.
“Winn Dixie” is played on a smartly designed set by Donyale Werle with the book’s famous bottle tree on full display. Olivia Sebesky created some beautifully rendered projections that fit perfectly with Jeff Croiter’s lighting. The fairly open stage also gave room for director John Rando (Tony-nominated for Broadway’s “On The Town” and “Urinetown”) to bring his own creative touches. A lot of them work beautifully – from the way the townspeople come together to create the supermarket (which felt reminiscent of Diane Paulus’ work in “Waitress”) to some picturesque tableaus. But a few scenes that cross-cut between two locations were awkwardly staged while the gimmick of projecting random song lyrics on the proscenium distracted rather than enhanced.
“Winn Dixie,” I believe, is a work in progress. It’s been staged in shorter runs at a few other regional theaters but is still being updated and refined. There’s a lot to like here and I don’t think it would take a ton of tweaks to make it a fully successful work. It needs more depth and the balance of characters feels a bit off. The second act isn’t paced as well as the first and contains the baffling decision to score a tense, dramatic moment with a bubbly rockabilly song. But these are fixable problems. What’s most impressive to me is that “Winn Dixie” is the rare children’s musical that doesn’t talk down to its audience. There’s no fart jokes or pop culture references. The story has some important life lessons and deals with real-world issues like addiction and loss.
The musical will no doubt draw parallels to “Annie,” the peppy, world-famous musical that made its premiere at Goodspeed in 1976. Yes, both feature a motherless girl and her pet dog but Sandy and Winn Dixie live in different worlds. In “Annie,” colors are bright, the evil villain gets her comeuppance and the heroine winds up happily ever after. “Winn Dixie” wisely understands that real life is far more complicated and it doesn’t try to deliver easy answers. Its characters are real, flawed humans whose problems can’t be tap-danced away. Their demons won’t be cured tomorrow. It’s a good lesson for kids of all ages to learn, rolled up in a fun and charming package. Not even a cute, obedient dog can solve life’s problems. Well, not all of them, at least.
“Because of Winn Dixie” is running through September 5 at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT. “Because of Winn Dixie,” based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, features book & lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik. The production is directed by John Rando and features scenic design by Donyale Werle, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, projection design by Olivia Sebesky, sound design by Jay Hilton, wig & hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer, music direction by Adam Souza, music supervision & orchestrations by Jason Hart, choreography by Chris Bailey and animal direction by William Berloni. The cast includes Bowdie (Winn Dixie), Chloe Cheers (Amanda), John Edwards (Carl), Jay Hendrix (Stevie), Brian Michael Hoffman (Jiggs), Isabel Keating (Franny), Crystal Kellogg (Callie), Jamie Mann (Dunlap), Sophia Massa (Sweetie Pie), David Poe (Otis), Nicole Powell (Millie), Roz Ryan (Gloria), Kacie Sheik (Jeanne), J. Robert Spencer (Preacher), Josie Todd (Opal) with Ryan Halsaver and MacKenzie Warren. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.