Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Because of Winn Dixie
The dog, whose actual name is Bowdie and who plays Winn Dixie in the show, is perfectly on his mark throughout. Trained by William Berloni, the large pooch makes timely entrances and exits, barks appropriately, and never refuses a biscuit. Well done. This performance is blocked (with specific movement) impeccably as Bowdie fully obliges.
Because of Winn Dixie is set in Naomi, Florida, during the current day. Most of the characters are beset with personal problems or less than ideal situations. Opal (Josie Todd) is a 13-year-old girl who now stays with her father since her mother left them. She is not at ease, needs a companion, and Winn Dixie is a perfect complement for her. Fittingly, young Josie Todd opens the musical with a ringing version of the song "Strays," which speaks for itself. The young actress lifts her voice on this rousing number.
The musical is based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Duncan Sheik's music has an unusual and pleasing hybrid sound as it seems to combine elements of country and bluegrass with (given an intriguing orchestral opening) jazz fusion. Adam Souza provides important musical direction and conducting.
A first act highlight is "Bottle Tree Blues." Roz Ryan, as Gloria Dump, has a loud, piercing voice which she lifts to personify a character who used to drink but does no longer. Donyale Werle's scenic design includes various bottles of many colors, which are lowered and suspended above Ryan as she belts out the tune. Some of the kids think she might be a witch, but Gloria has her own story.
Before intermission, Otis (David Poe), who owns a pet store, is featured. His melodious, plaintive ballad with guitar, "You Can't Run," closes out the longer portion of the show. Poe also sings lyrics from "Searchin'" during both of the acts. In many ways, that is what this simple yet lovely musical is about: people in need, trying to find friendship and/or themselves. Otis, too, has a less than favorable backstory.
Because of Winn Dixie is all the better for some harmonious duets. One between Opal's father, Preacher (J. Robert Spencer), and Jeanne Dewberry (Kacie Sheik) is called "I Know Lonely." Amanda (Chloe Cheers) is a literate girl who cannot wait to read another classic, but her family situation has suffered through tragedy. The young actress sings "I Know Lonely" with compassion and self-knowledge.
Chris Bailey's snappy choreography is of great benefit as Winn Dixie evolves. Director John Rando pulls all the production and performance elements together. New England summer theater patrons might be familiar with his excellent work on musicals at Barrington Stage Company. His work is at the same level of quality here.
It is difficult, from a middle orchestra seat, to see the children who are sitting on the stage. The sight lines do not permit a full view of the little ones and the irresistible dog. Otherwise, Because of Winn Dixie, a hearty musical theater occasion, will bring many smiles to the faces of those who take it in on a summer afternoon or evening.
Because of Winn Dixie, through September 5, 2019, at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam CT. For tickets and information, call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.