Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 22, 2019

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, Because of Winn Dixie

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
through September 5, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
As in Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables and, yes, Annie, Winn Dixie tells the story of how one kind, well-meaning character unites a community. The difference being, while there is a young girl involved in this modern story, it is her dog that actually brings everyone together. It is that canine character and the “actor” portraying him that make this show unique.

That dog is played by Bowdie, “a poodle crossed with something big” that is owned and trained by Bill Berloni, who was the animal director for the original “Sandy” in the original “Annie”. So it goes without saying that Bowdie knows how to command an audience. His “performance” is what elevates the show from just a “nice story” to something unique. See the show for the dog alone because rest assured no community theatre group would ever be able to pull this one off!

Based on a popular book and movie, “Winn Dixie” tells of young Opal and her preacher father moving to a small town in Florida. Opal finds and adopts a stray dog. Lonely Opal and lost dog meet and bond with the slightly broken, but well-meaning citizens of the Town, bringing everyone closer together. The overall story is simple; it is the back-stories of the characters that are complicated, and often sad.

The melancholy undertones are reinforced by the music of Duncan Sheik. As those familiar with his Tony winning work on “Spring Awakening” know, Sheik’s style is not typical, straightforward Broadway. Befitting the southern setting, there are influences of gospel, blues, and country western, but all, like the characters, are slightly askew of what’s expected. There are audience-pleasing favorites like “Bottle Tree Blues”, “Offer It Up” and the very amusing “Sulking”. But there is also the devastating “No One Watching”, quirky “Thirteen Things” and peculiar “Awoo”.

Josie Todd as Opal has the tricky task of having to act, sing and dog wrangle and she has pre-teen sass nailed down tight. Chloe Cheers, as the young girl with a family secret, deftly handles the pathos of “No One Watching”. But sometimes Sheik’s sophisticated melodies seem a bit much for the young characters to handle. The adults, like J. Robert Spencer as Preacher, when he sings “Offer It Up” and Roz Ryan as Gloria, better engage with their performances. The clear audience favorite, however, is David Coe, a veteran performer, as pet shop employee Otis, who slowly becomes the Greek chorus of the piece with his folksy “Searchin” and “You Can’t Run”.

Unfortunately, the Goodspeed's historic structure does not make for clear modern sight-lines and this is a problem when the “main character" spends a good deal of the time sitting or lying on the stage. Many members of the audience spent a lot of time craning their necks in an attempt to watch Bowdie perform. So be sure to get the kids a booster seat.

The book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls) take a refreshing approach to the people of faith who populate the story, treating their trials and tribulations with gentle dignity. “Winn Dixie” makes a good case for people to try and understand and connect with each other despite their differences. Author George Eliot said that “Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms” and the same can be said of Opal and Winn Dixie.