What is “Because of Winn Dixie,” a new musical at Goodspeed Musicals, made of? Well, sugar and spice and everything nice. This affable yet overly-sentimental piece of theatrical fluff, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo (it won a Newbury honor – yes, it’s a children’s book), with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik, is easy on the eye and ear but places little or no demands on the brain. It’s basically the story of a motherless girl and the dog that she befriends — or, perhaps, it’s the other way around – when they “meet cute” at a Winn Dixie supermarket. Hence, the dog’s name. Over the course of a summer, led by the perceptive pooch, the young girl finds friends and manages to bring several characters who have been ostracized by the town into the fold. All ends happily – was there ever any doubt – and closes with a rousing “What I Got is You” sung by the whole company. The dog may well have been part of the chorus.
As directed by John Rando, this piece of eye candy labors hard to make the audience love it – I guess your reaction all depends on your feelings about children and dogs. What can’t be argued is William Berloni’s work as the animal trainer. Winn Dixie, the dog, (played on opening night by Bowdie) appears in many scenes and must interact with a host of characters, plus carry some scenes all on his own – the most entrancing is when he has run away during a thunderstorm – here the stage is backlit and we see the dog rushing through the night (on a treadmill). Give that dog an extra can of Alpo.
The girl who befriends Winn Dixie is 13-year-old Opal (Josie Todd), the daughter of a less-than successful minister (J. Robert Spencer) whose wife left the two of them when Opal was three. They have just moved to Naomi, Florida, where the preacher has a new congregation. Opal is not happy with the move or with their new residence, and has a lot of questions about why she is motherless. Her personality is a bit spikey, so she doesn’t make friends easily, but Winn Dixie will take care of that. The two opening numbers, “Strays” and “Offer it Up” are essentially exposition, letting the audience know what’s what. Then the musical starts rolling on its affable way when Opal and Winn Dixie meet. The dog likes to wander, and Opal goes along for the ride and, in the process, is introduced to some of the town’s less than reputable characters (all of whom, of course, have hearts of gold beneath crusty or suspicious exteriors).
The first “suspicious” character the dog introduces Opal to is the ex-con, Otis (David Poe), who owns a pet store. Two brothers, Stevie (Jay Hendrix) and Dunlap (Jamie Mann) warn Opal about not going into the store, but Winn Dixie doesn’t give a hoot (or a woof), and so Opal follows the dog into the store, ostensibly to buy the dog a collar. To pass the time, Otis writes songs – when Opal enters he’s trying to work out some lyrics. The girl helps him and they strike up a relationship, which includes the girl working for the ex-con to pay for the dog collar.
The peripatetic pooch also leads Opal to the local witch, Gloria (Roz Ryan), whom Opal is also warned against associating with. It turns out that Gloria is not a witch but an ex-alcoholic who hangs empty bottles from a tree to remind her of the mistakes she has made in her life (“Bottle Tree Blues”).
The final “odd” character Winn Dixie introduces Opal to is the town librarian, Miss Franny (Isabel Keating), stern guardian of her library who has “rules.” As with Otis and Gloria, Franny is eventually brought out of her protective shell by the dog.
All of this can’t be considered gripping theater, and as for the music, well it’s as bland as the plot. However, the first act does move along, whereas the second act. besides a lot of lamenting on the part of the characters, seems to drag because, besides the “woe are we” scenes, there really isn’t much for the characters to do until near the end when Winn Dixie runs away (it’s that storm that frightens him) and the whole town sets out to find him in a rather chaotic set piece that seems a bit farcical, with characters rushing in and out and flashing lights. Of course, the dog eventually reappears and the entire cast celebrates.
Spencer gives a strong, controlled performance as the somewhat put-upon preacher, especially in the second act’s opening number when he and fellow parents perform “Sulking,” brought about by the recalcitrance of their children. As Opel, Todd has a good comedic sense and, especially in her scenes with Otis, is quite engaging. However, her voice is just a bit too high-pitched so, when she is singing or is angry the words seem to pierce you rather enter gently into your ears.
As for the laments, well Chloe Cheers does a nice job as Amanda with “No One Watching,” which is about her younger brother drowning in a pool when she was supposed to be watching him, and in a duet with the preacher, Kacie Sheik as Jean commiserates in “I Know Lonely” about their respective loss of spouses. If there’s a stand-out performance it’s delivered by Ryan as Gloria, who absolutely nails “Bottle Tree Blues.” Special mention should also be made of the youngest member of the cast, the precocious Sophia Massa as Sweetie Pie Thomas. She’s able to more than hold her own with the more senior actors and knows exactly what her character’s function in the musical should be. It’s a nice piece of acting, especially for one so young.
Some might say that finding fault with “Winn Dixie” is like kicking a dog when it’s lazing in the sun – it’s just mean-spirited. Well, the musical is what it is, and though it is heartfelt (just like a Hallmark card is heartfelt), it’s blatantly manipulative with regards to the emotions – I mean, we’re dealing with a kid and a dog here (W. C. Fields would have disdained working in the show). When you leave the theater about all you can say is, “Well, that was nice, that was sweet.” Yes, it’s nice and it’s sweet, but it’s also pulp fluff, a story that a 4th-grader might find compelling but one that probably leaves a portion of the older audience seeking the nearest watering hole for a good, stiff drink. There’s no denying that the scenes with Winn Dixie (the dog) are endearing, and the damn dog is superbly trained, but to buy into the idea that the dog is, to a certain extent, the town’s savior is a purchase that’s hard to make, unless you wear your heart on your sleeve.
“Because of Winn Dixie” runs through Sept. 5, with six performances added. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.