On the way to Goodspeed Musicals for a performance of “Because of Winn Dixie,” are billboards advertising the coming engagement of Jerry Seinfeld at Foxwoods. On the way back, the connection between “Winn Dixie” and the nihilistic approach of Seinfeld’s eponymous TV shows hits. Truly, both seemed to be “about nothing.”
Based on an award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo, “Winn Dixie” was released as a film in 2005. Now a musical, it’s a tenuous, forced affair, made of gossamer, colored within the lines.
But it does have one major, unforgettable aspect and that’s the title character, a scruffy, cuddly dog named, in the show, Winn Dixie (Bowdie), since that supermarket is where 13-year-old Opal (Josie Todd) finds him. By assuaging each other’s loneliness, an interdependent friendship blossoms.
That the dog is played by an amiable mutt and the girl by a multi-talented young actress makes the evening seem worthwhile. But the story – or, rather, stories – that surround the pair are rooted in the past: a bout in jail, a drowned son, a reformed alcoholic.
Even Opal spends time mooning over the mother who, for some reason, years ago deserted her and her dad, a preacher whose handle is “Preacher.” Even the tales that the spinster librarian Fanny Block (an underused Isabel Keating) tells during Story Hour don’t so much sketch in a back story as rely on it. Incidents are not as much part of the plot than appendages to it.
Among the ideas are conflicts between children and their parents, being lost and being found (“when you’re searching for your baby, who knows what you’re gonna find”), with Winn Dixie as the catalyst. When the dog apparently disappears, the entire town unites to find him, including so-called outcasts like a supposed “witch” and the ostracized pet shop owner. Opal, unafraid of even eccentrics, befriends everyone, gaining pals in the bargain.
Nell Benjamin’s book and lyrics, Duncan Sheik’s melodious country/blues score and John Rando’s direction avoid cuteness. Donyale Werle’s scenic designs and Jeff Croiter’s lighting are wonderfully atmospheric.
The cast is excellent, from Todd’s wise Opal, to J. Robert Spencer’s sympathetic Preacher, Roz Ryan’s maternal Gloria (stopping the show with “Bottle Tree Blues”), Chloë Cheers’ powerful “No One Watching,” Jamie Mann, Jay Hendrix, the amazing Sophia Mass as Sweetie Pie and the superb David Poe as Otis, the pet shop owner whose “Searchin’” is the show’s most affecting number.
And then there’s Bowdie’s Winn Dixie, trained and handled by Tony winner William Berloni. The dog is not only winsome, but on cue can bark, lick windows and faces, jump onto a couch, play tug-of-war, run on a treadmill and eat someone’s dinner. Since that’s more than the human actors are required to do, Bowdie (described in the program as “a cross between a poodle and something large”) deserves a (preferably digestible) award all his own.
Taking place in Florida, where nostalgia for the past is rampant, the good-natured “Because of Winn Dixie” won’t tax anyone’s brain. It’s like visiting your aged grandmother and listening to a bunch of her recollected anecdotes.