Pity the adult actors who have to share the stage not only with a flock of scene-stealing youngsters, but also the cutest darn stage dog this side of Sandy from “Annie”. I’m talking about “Bowdie”, the bona fide star and title character of the Goodspeed Musicals’ latest production, “Because of Winn Dixie”. This kind of star quality definitely doesn’t come along every day. If only he were enough to save this rather lackluster family musical.
In Naomi, Florida, a motherless young girl (Josie Todd), who has an uneasy relationship with her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer), comes upon a lost dog in a supermarket that she decides to adopt. She names him Winn Dixie (after the store) and it isn’t long before the pooch is getting her to make friends with some of Florida’s local outcasts. They include Otis (David Poe), the “crazy pet store man”, Gloria Dump (Roz Ryan), the “town witch” and Franny Block (Isabel Keating), the stern librarian who all melt under the spell of meeting Winn Dixie (seriously, who wouldn’t?). Somehow Winn Dixie is eventually credited for bringing the whole town together when, in act two, he goes missing forcing everyone to join forces and search. It’s a pretty thin premise to hang an entire musical upon, but it probably worked better in its original form as a popular 2000 children’s book by Kate DiCamillo.
With unremarkable book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik, “Because of Winn Dixie” is still perfectly adequate fare to bring the kids to with its overt sentimentality, positive themes and cute pooch to offer. It all goes down fairly easy and somewhat recalls the live action feature films from Disney in the 1960s like “Pollyanna” and “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. But the curmudgeon in me needs to point out that while Miss Todd can belt like an “American Idol” contestant, she is unable to bring significant feeling or passion to the words she is singing. Mr. Spencer is serviceable as her dad, but never seems to take charge of his scenes or make a serious impression. The single best adult performance is Mr. Poe’s who has an easy charisma with the youngsters and deftly accompanies himself on guitar while singing the moving act one curtain, “You Can’t Run”. Also worth a mention is the outsized performance of Ms. Ryan who stops the show briefly with “Bottle Tree Blues”, the musical’s liveliest number.
Donyale Werle’s puzzling scenic design frames the stage with gray, forbidden walls that suggest a gothic fortress belying the sunny Florida locale. Jeff Croiter’s expert lighting rarely disappoints especially during the torrential downpour that occurs during most of the second act. No review of the show, however, would be complete without mention of Connecticut’s most famous “Animal Director”, Bill Berloni. Mr. Berloni made his name by introducing “Sandy” way back in 1976 at Goodspeed and has been the go-to guy for all things animal on Broadway and beyond ever since. His work with “Bowdie” here is nothing short of miraculous (the dog reportedly has over 200 cues). The moment that features Winn Dixie on a treadmill during a thunderstorm may prove to be the stage highlight of the season.
“Because of Winn Dixie” has already been extended through September 5. For further information or ticket reservations call: (860) 873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.