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.

 

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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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