Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Because of Winn-Dixie and
The Three Musketeers


Bowdie and Brian Michael Hoffman
Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media
The musical Because of Winn-Dixie fills the stage of the Delaware Theatre Company with a group of child actors and a dog. So far, so adorable. But this isn't a typical family musical filled with slick showtunes and slick messages. It's a gentle show with some serious themes, teaching kids (and adults) that are no easy answers in life. While the songs tend to be too downbeat, and the mood sometimes gets too somber, it's a worthwhile show that manages to be both heartwarming and rewarding. And it's got a dog that you'll just love.

Based on Kate DiCamillo's novel, Because of Winn-Dixie tells the story of Opal, a young girl who finds herself miserable and lonely after she moves with her father to a sleepy Florida hamlet—a place she refers to sarcastically in the opening number, "World's Most Awesome Town." But things start looking up for Opal when she finds a rambunctious dog running amok in the aisles of the local Winn-Dixie grocery store. She takes the dog home and names it after the store, and pretty soon the dog is attracting a lot of attention in the town and making Opal a lot of new friends. But some of those friends have troubled pasts—and as she learns about their history, Opal learns there's more to a person (and a dog) than meets the eye.

This is not a musical that talks down to kids; it takes children and their concerns seriously. The script by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) expands on the book, fleshing out the characters (especially the parents) skillfully. And Benjamin's lyrics are filled with clever rhymes and lines that swiftly encapsulate the characters' attitudes. The music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), however, is more problematic. It's got a captivating sound—a mixture of country, blues and gospel that's perfect for the story's Southern setting (Jason Hart did the terrific arrangements for the sharp eight-piece onstage band). But while there are a few uptempo numbers, most of the songs are repetitive minor key ballads that sap the show of the energy it badly needs. And when you marry minor key melodies with weighty lyrics—as in "No One Watching," in which one of Opal's playmates question her belief in God following the death of her brother—well, things can get sticky.

Despite this, most of the songs work well in context—like "Bottle Tree Blues," a stomping tune for a local eccentric known as The Witch (played by an ebullient Joilet Harris); "You Can't Run," a song for a brooding ex-con (Christopher Ryan Grant, powerful and expressive) trying to turn his life around; "Sweet Life," in which the local librarian (the delightful Carolyn Mignini) tells the dramatic story of an ancestor's exploits during the Civil War; and "Thirteen Things," a contemplative duet for Opal and her father (Clark Thorell, whose warm tenor and sympathetic acting give the show a great deal of heart).

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge gets a lot of variety from the adults in her cast. It's a shame that some of the children in the cast don't shine as brightly. Kylie McVey (as Opal) and Leonay Shephard (as her eventual friend Amanda) have to carry much of the story, but unfortunately they're so inexpressive that it's hard to warm up to them.

Oh, and did I mention the dog? Well, it's easy to warm up to him. Winn-Dixie is played by Bowdie, who is trained by Broadway's top animal man, Bill Berloni. It's marvelous to see how the dog and the cast interact—how he obeys (or purposely disobeys) McVey's commands at crucial moments, how Brian Michael Hoffman (as a rowdy grocer) does a hilarious pratfall when the dog leaps on him, how Winn-Dixie wins over Opal's skeptical father with a well-timed lick to the face. During the show's curtain call, Berloni takes the final bow—and he deserves to.

Because of Winn-Dixie is a flawed musical, but it's one worth seeing. It's a show that kids will enjoy because it treats them, and their concerns, with respect. It's a sweet show with some sour edges, and while its music and its attitude are sometimes too bleak, its thoughtfulness and its down home charms will eventually win you over. And its dog will win you over, too.

Because of Winn-Dixie runs through May 10, 2015, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. Tickets are $35-$55 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the box office at 302-594-1100, or online at www.DelawareTheatre.org.



The Cast
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is an adventure story that's been dramatized countless times over the past two centuries, and for a good reason—it's a rousing tale filled with intrigue, swordplay, appealing characters, and lots of plot twists. And while it might seem formulaic today, there's no doubt that when the novel was published in 1844, it practically invented the formula that we know today as action-adventure. Quintessence Theatre's new stage adaptation manages to cover the story's major plot points with clarity and a great deal of refreshing wit.

That's quite an achievement, since Dumas' novel runs far too long and mixes fast-paced storytelling with long stretches of tedium. (Trudging through six straight chapters about the villainess Milady de Winter's attempts to seduce a prison guard - written in stilted, drearily translated nineteenth century prose - made me want to slap Dumas and say "Get on with it.") Fortunately, this new stage version sticks to the first half of Dumas' epic story and cuts out the boring parts.

Connor Hammond is dashing and impetuous as the hero d'Artagnan, and most of the other thirteen ensemble members play multiple roles. Standouts include Sean Close, who provides a campy turn as King Louis XIII; Andrew Criss, who switches effortlessly between a serious role (as the musketeers' noble leader) and a comic one; Rachel Brodeur, who plays both the resourceful heroine and a saucy barmaid; and Gregory Isaac, who goes from the boisterous musketeer Porthos to the steely-eyed villain Cardinal Richelieu. And Ian Rose's fight direction uses dozens of swords (and a wooden pole or two) to thrilling effect.

Director Alexander Burns (who co-wrote this adaptation with company members Close, Josh Carpenter, and Mattie Hawkinson) deploys his troupe effectively on the boxing ring-like stage. The ensemble acting could stand to be tightened up, especially in its diction; I counted three different pronunciations of "d'Artagnan" and two of "Aramis." But for the most part, this production delivers the pleasure an audience expects from The Three Musketeers. Without, you know, all that boring stuff.

The Three Musketeers runs through May 10, 2015, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $15 - $27, with discounts available for students and seniors, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-987-4450, or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy


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