Because of Winn Dixie

“Because of Winn Dixie”

Goodspeed Opera House

Goodspeed Opera House is currently presenting the new musical, “Because of Winn Dixie,” a show which is cute and sincere, but, ultimately, unsatisfying.  Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, and the 2005 film of the same name, “Because of Winn Dixie” certainly has been created by a team of remarkable, award-winning talents. Composer Duncan Sheik hit it big with “Spring Awakening,” and Nell Benjamin, responsible for the book and lyrics, scored mightily with both “Legally Blonde” and the current “Mean Girls.”  Plus, director John Rando won a Tony Award for “Urinetown” and he is one of the most sought-after directors in New York.

Unfortunately, those past successes don’t transfer the same effect to “Because of Winn Dixie.”  The show definitely looks good, with handsome scenic design by Donyale Werle, and Jeff Croiter’s lighting design is one of the most amazing that I have ever seen.  But, despite a game cast, the show too often feels underpowered and the score, on the whole, is pleasant and easy going, but not much more, save for a few good songs.  If Goodspeed Opera House is trying to duplicate the triumph they had with “Annie” (which also contained a story about an adorable young girl and her dog), “Because of Winn Dixie” doesn’t hit the mark.  This musical tries hard, and isn’t difficult to sit through, but the overall feeling of “Because of Winn Dixie,” at Goodspeed Opera House, is that of a well-meaning, but largely underwhelming new show.

I am unfamiliar with the novel of “Because of Winn Dixie,” as well as the film version, but the basic plot of the show is that of a preacher and his daughter who relocate to a new town, where the daughter finds a shaggy wonder of a dog, whom everyone in town eventually falls in love with.  That dog, named Winn Dixie, is played by Bowdie, who rightfully gets top billing in the cast list in the program and also gets the final bow.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this musical is how much time Winn Dixie is seen onstage.  The animal director, William Berloni, deserves major kudos for training Bowdie, and the pooch is irresistible throughout the show.

If only the rest of “Because of Winn Dixie” was as strong.  The cast assembled for this musical contains more than a few actors whom I admire greatly, including J. Robert Spencer, who was so wonderful in “Next to Normal.”  Portraying the preacher in this new show, Spencer is as good as he can be, but his material just doesn’t land.  The most outstanding performers in this musical include Roz Ryan, who transforms her big solo, “Bottle Tree Blues,” into a definite showstopper, and Isabel Keating is equally lively as the librarian in the town.

Also, all the young actors do well, with special mention to Josie Todd, who basically carries the show, playing the preacher’s daughter, Opal.  Just as good are Jay Hendrix and Jamie Mann, as mischievous boys who eventually befriend Opal, and Chloe Cheers, as the character Amanda, who gets a stunning song at the top of the second act, called “No One Watching.”  There is definite emotion in this solo, but most of the rest of the score is basically gentle and easy going, nice to listen to, without really containing any tunes that can get lodged in your brain.

Mention should also go to David Poe, as Otis, the pet store owner who is also an ex-con.  Poe strums on a guitar and sings tenderly, but there is some mystery why a supporting character like Otis should get the first act finale song (in this show, it is called “You Can’t Run”).  In most musicals, the end of Act I contains urgency, involving the leading players, a feeling that “Because of Winn Dixie” too often lacks.  This musical goes down smoothly—perhaps too smoothly– but if “Because of Winn Dixie” is to have a future beyond Goodspeed Opera House it really needs more drama and more passion if it is truly going to ignite the stage.

“Because of Winn Dixie” continues performances at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through September 5, 2019.  For tickets, please visit www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.

Photo: Josie Todd and Bowdie

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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