Goodspeed Musicals’ “Because of Winn Dixie,” running through September 1, and directed with sensitivity by John Rando, is on its way to being a beautiful and poignant piece: a sparkling, girl-and dog-centered adventure in growing up and making friends. At this point, the plot needs some re-shaping, but Connecticut is lucky to have this new musical before it moves, as I’m guessing it will, to Broadway.
“Because of Winn Dixie” is based on Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning 2000 novel for young people, with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (“Mean Girls” and “Legally Blonde”) and a glorious score by Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”). At the outset,
we learn that twelve-year-old Opal (a terrific Josie Todd) has just moved once again with her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer), this time to Naomi, Florida. Opal’s charming but volatile mother has recently left the family, and her dad has been traveling from place to place to escape his pain. As he and Opal try to settle into their latest trailer home, “Preacher,” as he is called, sends Opal to buy groceries—because they need food, and because he needs some time away from his unhappy daughter.
And therein lies a tale—the fluffy, almost perpetually wagging tail of Winn Dixie, a huge grey, soulful mutt who attaches himself to Opal in the Winn-Dixie grocery store and refuses to leave her side. Playing Winn Dixie is the exceptional Bowdie, described in the program as “a poodle crossed with something large.” Bowdie has been adopted and trained by William Berloni, the world-famous animal trainer and advocate who began his career over forty years ago, when, as an intern at the Goodspeed, he was told to find and train a dog for the world premiere of another new musical, “Annie.” Youthful Berloni adopted “Sandy” from a nearby animal shelter, and since then, every animal he has trained for stage or screen has been a rescue.
This back-story is sweetly appropriate for “Because of Winn Dixie,” since both the dog and the girl need rescuing—Winn Dixie literally, and Opal in her hurt young soul. As she and her dog begin to explore their new home, they find numerous other souls in need of rescue and friendship.
Here the script begins to shine, in the first act, but it wobbles, in the second. In Act One, Opal meets the Dewberry boys, Dunlap (Jamie Mann, in a remarkably charismatic and accomplished performance) and his younger brother, Stevie (Jay Hendrix, the perfect little brother foil). They initially tease her but become her protectors when she declares that she is going to buy Winn Dixie a collar at the oddly named “Gertrude’s Pet Store.” “Gertrude’s” is actually run by an outcast named Otis, known to the young people as “The Crazy Pet Store Man.”
David Poe, as Otis, gives one of the most honest performances of the evening—a performance that becomes electrifying at the close of Act One, with his haunting, throbbing solo “You Can’t Run.” I hope that Otis makes up a larger part of the story if the musical is revised.
Opal and Winn Dixie also meet Gloria Dump, despite the children’s warning that she is a witch. Roz Ryan, as Gloria, has a showy number (“Bottle Tree Blues”) and a terrific voice, but Gloria herself is one misunderstood character too many for this plot.
Also superfluous is a nascent love story between Preacher and Jeanne Dewberry (mother of the boys). Kaci Sheik is fine as Jeanne, but Jeanne, as written, typifies the problem with most of the Naomi residents: they are portrayed as Southern stereotypes: not too bright, with broad and inconsistent accents, and a great enthusiasm for foods such as Frito Pie and 8-Layer Salad.
By contrast, though, young Amanda (played by a convincing and golden-voiced Chloë Cheers) is a realistically mean-spirited bookworm who wants nothing to do with Opal. However, this character poses a different problem: her story could easily be a musical all its own. When the full force of Amanda’s situation hits, in Act Two, Opal and Winn Dixie can just barely recover the spotlight.
If the book’s weaknesses limit almost all of these superb actors, Sheik’s score and Benjamin’s lyrics show the cast at its shining best. Opal’s “Strays” expresses her heartache at the same time that it introduces the show’s theme. Equally touching are her “Awoo,” sung to Winn Dixie, and “Thirteen Things,” in which she insists that her father talk to her about her mother and his pain.
Preacher is given three dimensions from the beginning with “Offer it Up,” and in “Sulking” we get a fresh and original take on the frustrations of both parents and kids on bad days. The Dewberry boys’ “Ballad of the Crazy Pet Store Man” is a very funny highlight, and David Poe’s harrowing “You Can’t Run” makes one wish the cast album were available now.
And then there is the atmospheric, mysterious set design by Donyale Werle, augmented by Olivia Sebesky’s gorgeous projections. From the moment we walk into the theater, we are enveloped by wisteria, wind, and a place as foreign and intriguing as Southern Florida feels to Opal.
Despite its flaws, “Because of Winn Dixie” is a rich experience that warms the spirit. Of course, that is in part because of Winn Dixie/Bowdie, but it’s also because of John Rando’s sure direction and the cast’s and designers’ palpably heartfelt commitment.