Saturday, July 20, 2019

CT Theater Review: Because of Winn Dixie at Goodspeed

Bowdie and Josie Todd  with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Because of Winn Dixie, extended through Sept. 5 at The Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Because of Winn Dixie
Book and Lyrics by: Nell Benjamin, based on the Novel by: Kate DiCamillo
Music by: Duncan Sheik
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Animal Direction: William Berloni
Director: John Rando

By Lauren Yarger
Because of Winn Dixie at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House restores our faith in a wholesome, fun, moving story as a viable theater offering. Can I get an "awooo!"?

This charmer, with music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) a book by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde, Mean Girls), based on the popular young people's novel by Kate DiCamillo is full of kids, a dog, faith, laughter, friendship and second chances. What's not to love? Especially when you see the tons of kids in the audience. In a climate where most new theater offerings (and updated revivals) feel the need to push every political and social agenda to be "woke" and justified in the "me-too" environment, it is doggone refreshing (sorry, couldn't resist) to enjoy one that focuses on everyday people with everyday issues in a positive, uplifting way. After all, when times are trying, theater should be a happy release some of the time.

And that is just what Because of Winn Dixie is.  It follows the story of 13-year-old Opal (Josie Todd), who moves to a trailer park with her preacher father (J. Robert Spencer) when her mother leaves them. The preacher has no trouble speaking in front of his new congregation, but communicating with his daughter is tougher as he won't discuss their recent loss. Opal overcomes her loneliness by saving a stray she names after the local grocery store. "Winn Dixie" (Bowdie, trained by Connecticut's Tony-Award-winning animal trainer William Berloni) becomes her constant companion and the dog wins the hearts of the congregation and community members.

They are

  • The Dewberry boys, Dunlap and Stevie (Jamie Mann and Jay Hendrix) and their single mom, Jeanne (Kacie Sheik -- yes, she is Duncan's half sister), who starts spending time with the preacher, much to Opal's disapproval
  • Slow-witted Callie and Jiggs Thomas  (Crystal Kellogg and Brian Michael Hoffman) and their little peanut of a daughter, Sweetie Pie (Sophia Massa), for whom they want a better life.
  • Millie and Carl Wilkinson (Nicole Powell  and John Edwards), who are grieving over the death of their son and who don't know how to communicate with their bookworm daughter, Amanda (Chloë Cheers), whom Opal doesn't like at all.
  • Otis (David Poe) , a guitar-playing pet store owner who is treated as an outsider in town because of his prison record.
  • Librarian Fanny Block (Isabel Keating (Franny Block)) who entertains the kids with her story times.
  • Gloria Dump (Roz Ryan ) the witch who lives in the woods and encourages the kids to add their deepest thoughts and wishes to pages storesd in the bottles hanging from her trees and representing her drinking days of past.
All of the characters are dealing with loss of some kind and the feeling that they don't fit in. Winn Dixie changes all of that, breathes some new life into them and unites them all when he disappears during a terrible storm (Lighting and Sound Design by Jeff Croiter and Jay Hilton, respectively.) Choreographer Chris Bailey wisely keeps movement on the subtle side and coordinates nicely so the storytelling isn't overshadowed.

Even if the story weren't engaging, the show would be a hit just because of Winn Dixie, or Bowdie, rather. The pooch, described as a mix between a poodle and something larger,  receives applause on entrance (the audience  is shocked by his large size) and delights as he hits all of his marks and cues perfectly.  There were a lot of "awwwww"s from the audience and even more smiles throughout the production. Here's hoping this musical ends up on Broadway and tours for a long time around a country in need of some "aaaaw" and smiles.

A few things need to happen before that can happen. While there are some nice ballads and an opportunity for Ryan to show her vocal talents -- her "Bottle Tree Blues" is one of the more entertaining numbers -- Sheik's score needs a boost. The openings of both acts are pretty weak and a number of songs seems to offers tunes that sit on the same few notes (and even still, some of them proved a stretch for some of the younger vocalists). It's a new type of musical for the composer of Spring Awakening and American Psycho, but he's up to the challenge.

Donyale Werle's sets are simple, with easy changes between the church, the library, the trailer and other locales. Lighting needs some tweaking, however as there are some awful glares and color and scene changes are telegraphed.

But if anyone can bring it together, it's Director John Rando, who has helmed another family-friendly musical on Broadway, A Christmas Story: The Musical. (He won the Tony for Urinetown). This one is worth tweaking. Kids love DiCamillo's book and the movie on which it was based. The stage musical seems the next natural incarnation of the story and can entertain audiences for years, just like that other wholesome musical starring a dog -- also trained by Berloni -- Annie.


More information:

The run has been extended through Se[t. 5 at Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam, CT. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Thursday at 7:30 pm (with select performances at 2); Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3  and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30). Tickets: 860-873-8668; goodspeed.org

Additional credits:
Costumer Designer: Emily Rebholz; Wig and Hair Designer, Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Music Supervisor / Orchestrator,  Jason Hart;  Music Director, Adam Souza


Additional casting: Ryan Halsaver (Townsperson); Mackenzie Warren (Townsperson)

Open Caption Performance: Friday, July 26, 8 pm. Open-captioning is a service that displays the text of a show simultaneously with the performance without the use of any special equipment by the patron. The words are displayed on a 4-foot by 1-foot LCD screen located near the edge of the stage and are thus “open” to anyone within view.

 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Donna Walker-Kuhne Receives LPTW's First Rachel Crothers Leadership Award

LaChanze, André DeShields and Donna Walker-Kuhne. 
Photo: Valerie Terranova Photography

By Lauren Yarger
Marketer and Audience Developer Donna Walker-Kuhne received the first Rachel Crothers Leadership Award on June 27, presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women at an inaugural luncheon at Sardi's hosted by André DeShields.

Pop singer and Broadway star LaChanze (currently Off-Broadway in The Secret Life of Bees) performed "Feeling Good," accompanied by Marco Pagula on piano.

An award-winning marketing consultant, Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group, a boutique marketing, press and audience development agency. She is recognized as one of the country's foremost experts in audience development and she and her team specialize in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press and promotional events.

The leadership award is named in honor of playwright Rachel Crothers, (Susan and God; The Three of Us) who was a champion of women's rights before women could vote. She worked to help those serving on the front during World War I and II and founded an organization that later went on to become the American Theatre Wing, which partners with the Broadway League, to present the annual Tony Awards, honoring Broadway's best each season.

The  League of Professional Theatre Women will present the newly established Crothers leadership award to a theater woman "who has distinguished herself in exemplary service and sacrifice for a common cause—a cause which leaves our society and the world a little better than the way we found it."

"We are very excited by the opportunity the League has now to award a theater woman who brings her gifts and talents to bear in addressing a national or local cause or issue affecting our fellow citizens and everyday Americans," said Yvette Heyliger, co-vice president of programming at LPTW.

The award was presented by Playwright Rehana Lew Mirza (Barriers). In addition, Marvin Lowe, a soloist with the Harlem Gospel Singers, presented "Siyahamba," a South African welcome song, and longtime LPTW member Zoe Coralink Kaplan and DeShields reminded the crowd that Crothers made famous the quote about a woman's place being in the house -- and the Senate!

Walker-Kuhne expressed her appreciation by acknowledging and thanking her mentors who taught her along the way and opened doors. Among them were famed director George C Wolfe and Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who in 1985, while touring around the country, asked the question. "Where are the Black people?”

"That questioned launched my career in audience development and community engagement," Walker-Kuhne said.

Walker-Kuhne said she loves teaching and providing tools and support for the next generation of arts administrators. She challenged those coming up to "shake up society and revitalize the whole world. Create a winning life and through your art, inspire the world, inspire all of us to be our best. Advance like young lions—be ferocious, tenacious, innovative and warm-hearted."

DeSheilds, currently starring on Broadway in Hadestown, entertained the luncheon attendees with political comments, prayers and some of his popular  snippets of advice:

"Don't give up, in or over. Stay on the path until you win," he said.

For more information of the League of Professional Theatre Women, visit theatrewomen.org.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A New Path

Photo: Alexander Cy
I am still seeing a lot of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, but I won't be formally reviewing all of them. Starting with the 2019-2020 season, I am producing and writing a number of shows. Information will be coming soon about those. If you would like to join the new mailing list, please contact

Reflectionsinthelight  at gmail.com
-- Lauren Yarger

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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