"Winn Dixie": Better by Arf Than Most Musicals

Josie Todd & Bowdie in "Because of Winn Dixie"
photo: Diane Sobolewski)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog.....

..So begins the story of Because of Winn Dixie, a musical adaptation of the novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo. The young adult book was as bittersweet as the town's famous lozenges (full of sweetness with a hint of something mysteriously serious). In this musicalized version that mysterious ingredient is identified as sorrow (whereas in the novel it's a more poignant term, melancholy). But thanks to the discovery of a brand new star in the theatrical heavens, this joyous creation, now being performed by Goodspeed Musicals, emerges as the most enjoyable musical in a dog's age.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Though its pleasant score isn't as memorable as prior work by Nell Benjamin (Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (Music), what makes it soar is the Book (also by Benjamin) which develops the subsidiary characters in more depth than the novel, and the performances of a uniformly excellent ensemble of players, led by a rising new star. That would be Bowdie, described in his bio as “a cross between a poodle and something large”, in the title role of a rescue dog. The range of his performance is astounding, requiring him to do just about every conceivable (and some inconceivable) action required by his gradual transformation from wags to riches.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

He has excellent support from a cast, superbly Directed by John Rando, that includes ten-year-old Opal Buloni (the incandescent Josie Todd), her father the Preacher whose wife has left home (the conflicted J. Robert Spencer), a nearly blind recluse named Gloria Dump (rousing Roz Ryan), avid reader with some heavy baggage, Amanda Wilkinson (Chloe Cheers), the diminutive Sweetie Pie Thomas (cutie pie Sophia Massa), Town librarian Miss Franny Block (the eccentric Isabel Keating), and the Dewberry family, consisting of Dunlap (Jamie Mann), Stevie (Jay Hendrix) and their mother Joanne (Kacie Sheik), not to mention the critically important local pet store proprietor Otis (David Poe) who dreams of a musical career and serves as a sort of Greek chorus. The remainder of the cast include Jiggs Thomas (Brian Michael Hoffman), Millie Wilkinson (Nicole Powell), Carl Wilkinson (John Edwards), and Townspeople Ryan Halsaver and MacKenzie Warren, all terrific actors and dancers (with Choreography by Chris Bailey), very natural without putting on the dog. 

J. Robert Spencer & Josie Todd in "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The creative team, always a strong point with Goodspeed, includes Scenic Design by Donyale Werle, Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Wig & Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer, Music Direction by Adam Souza and Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Jason Hart. The exquisite Animal Direction is by a wizard named William Berloni. All help in giving Winn Dixie a whole new leash on life.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

With the exception of the replacement of the word sorrow for the more profound melancholy, this is a near perfect adaptation to the stage. So what are you waiting for? Even if, like Winn Dixie, you're a bit scared of thunder (and there's a bit of that), move your tail and get tickets.

Better by arf than most contemporary musicals, it's been extended through September 5th.

"Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson Musical": DOA

Chris McCarrell in "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The most striking visual from the new musical The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson Musical (a TheaterWorksUSA production now at the Huntington Theatre) serves as an apt metaphor for the show, as it presents the titular hero with a toilet paper spewing rifle aimed directly at its pre-adolescent targets in the audience. Though this is clearly not a work for the entire family, it did seem to please its niche. It's adapted from the clever young adult novel by Rick Riordan by Joe Tracz with Music and Lyrics (largely unintelligible in this mega-decibel treatment) by Rob Rokicki, and directed at break-neck speed by Stephen Brackett with a cast that while energetic apparently have never been introduced to ritalin. It checks in at just under two hours, though it seems like an eternity, perhaps appropriately for a story about gods and demi-gods. Among the small cast of seven, the standouts are the title character played by the talented Chris McCarrell and, in multiple roles, T. Shyvonne Stewart. Mention should be made of the fabulously intricate Lighting Design by David Lander. As for the score, it's dependent on percussion and synthesizing, and one number is indistinguishable from another, save for the disco-age number (unfortunately descriptive) “Dead on Arrival”.
This production will continue until July 28th, when one may then concentrate on Huntington Theatre Company's very promising 2019-2020 season, which one hopes will be a welcome alternative to the equally endless-seeming political season.