I saw Ethel Merman once, Mary Martin twice and Barbra Streisand thrice (for I saw FUNNY GIRL both in its Boston tryout and on Broadway).
Gwen Verdon, Phil Silvers, Beatrice Lillie, Robert Preston, Chita Rivera, Zero Mostel, Julie Harris, Helen Hayes – yup, caught them all in one vehicle or another.
Segueing to later years, I’ve seen every Broadway show that has starred Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel and Sutton Foster.
So why am I waving my theatrical credentials at you? I’m establishing that when I saw those superstars, they didn’t get the tumultuous entrance applause — and exit applause — as quickly as Bowdie did in BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE at The Goodspeed Opera House.
Well, if Bowdie is such a star, why am I only giving the performer’s first or last name and not both?
Bowdie doesn’t have a second name.
He’s a dog.
Ummmm, well, in his bio – yes, he deservedly gets one — he’s described as “a cross between a poodle and something large.”
Let’s place the emphasis on the latter.
One character in this terrific musical says that he “looks like an old gray carpet.” To a degree that’s true, but there is that adorable good-times-and-bum-times face that enchants the audience as soon as the back doors of the set open to reveal him. Bowdie, without moving a hair, already has the crowd in the palm of his paw.
Then he gets up, simply walks off stage right, and by then the audience, having officially experienced Love at First Sight, starts its wild hand-clapping again.
A stage performance doesn’t always eclipse an earlier film performance but Bowdie has easily bested his movie forebears – yes, forebearS, plural. Two dogs — Lyco and Scott — shared the duties in the 2005 film, and Lord only knows how many retakes director Wayne Wang needed to get what he wanted from each of them.
Bowdie has to do it right every night, right here, right now, with no second chances. The only thing he seems to be unable to do is bark in time to the music. What he surely does is answer each of his 209 cues.
And how many did Sandy have in ANNIE?
Back in 1976, Goodspeed gave ANNIE its first production. One must wonder if that smash spurred Goodspeed’s executive director Michael Gennaro to choose this new musical; his father Peter choreographed that earlier girl-and-a-dog musical and received a Tony for it.
Or maybe Michael Gennaro wanted to do BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE because it’s very good. He had to be impressed by the satisfying music that Duncan (SPRING AWAKENING) Sheik has provided, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics that sit perfectly on the songs and her libretto that betters the 2005 film.
In both properties, a dog bursts into a Winn Dixie store and causes chaos. In the film version of Kate DiCamillo’s 2000 novel, the store’s manager sees the carnage that the dog has caused and then demands to know who owns the beast. Twelve-year-old Opal, new to this tiny Florida town, steps up and says that the dog belongs to her.
Hmmm, wouldn’t the manager at least make an attempt to contact her parents to pay for the considerable damage? This flaw in the film obviously rankled Benjamin. So she has the manager assume that the mutt belongs to Opal who denies it with the fervor of a guilty politician who’s been found out.
Opal takes the dog anyway, for she’d already been singing that she and her father are “Strays” what with their constantly moving from one dull locale to another. Opal, friendless once again, identifies with this mongrel and brings him to their trailer-park home. “Now,” she sings, “there are three strays.”
No woman lives there, for mother/wife left long ago. Benjamin’s excellent lyric for Opal explains “Mama’s like a swear-word that I’m not allowed to say.” To her new furry friend, she says “The only one who’s listening is you.”
Opal’s referring to her father – identified not by name but solely by occupation: Preacher. He’s despondent because the church he’s trying to establish isn’t flourishing. “I have faith it can get worse,”
Preacher realizes how oh-so-right he is when Opal saunters in with the dog she’s named Winn Dixie in homage to where she found him. She’ll have to work hard to have Preacher accept him.
The show avoids what doomed PRETTY WOMAN. This isn’t merely the screenplay on stage with songs thrust in every now and then. Benjamin, a Broadway veteran (LEGALLY BLONDE; MEAN GIRLS) has created some excellent dialogue that enhances what the film offered. She has a funny smart-ass answer to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Then she brilliantly sets up a moment that involves Winn Dixie’s eating. Benjamin even finds time to include a funny variation on the famous apocryphal story about Lionel Ritchie (and others) and his enormous dog and his encounter with some women on an elevator.
All this helps, because DiCamillo didn’t offer much plot; she relied on characters who are colorful enough to command your interest.
Otis is the pet shop employee who has a past he’d love to shake; trouble is, many in town want to see his shame indelibly tattooed on his mind. Jesse Lenat shows Otis’ world-weariness in admirable fashion.
What rural neighborhood didn’t have young kids assuming that the woman down the street who rarely left the house was some sort of witch? Here it’s Gloria (pardon her last name) Dump. Benjamin and director John Rando engineer a great fake-out when the kids and we meet the “witch.”
Roz Ryan excels in playing her and in belting a powerful blues number. (In it, Benjamin endorses STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ thesis that “The first line of the blues always gets sung a second time.”)
Franny Block is the quirky town librarian. In portraying her, Isabel Keating borders on the eccentric but is never unbalanced; she’s centered in her own way.
Incidentally, Benjamin gets us into the library in a smarter way than the film does. Ditto the way she has Opal bond with Amanda, whom she never thought would be her friend. The way Amanda tells of her family’s great tragedy is superior to the offhand mention that happens in the movie; here she gets a splendid loss-of-faith song that Chloe Cheers does so well that her applause even rivals Bowdie’s.
(Sheik and Benjamin have also written a hymn that, if given the chance, could soar to Number One on the Christian Music charts.)
J. Robert Spencer is excellent as Preacher, having the patience of Job when his job isn’t going well. He never talks down to Opal, and when he finally opens up about his lost wife, he’s sensitive and real when stating “Love is worth it, even if you lose.”
That sentiment may have inspired Benjamin to add a potential romance for Preacher, which he didn’t get in the film. As much as Opal wants a mother, Jeanne (the amiable Jacqueline Petroccia) isn’t her first choice.
Even Jeff Croiter’s lighting is innovative. In a night scene where the moon is shining through the trees, Croiter isn’t content just to show that on stage; he expands the effect all over the theater. Actors come into the audience; why shouldn’t lighting?
Josie Todd is an estimable Opal, showing single-mindedness without being obnoxious about it. She succeeds in relating to Winn Dixie, but with Bowdie on the scene, who wouldn’t?
Rando might consider another look at the other young performers who lay it on a tiny bit thick; the lad playing an older brother adds an extra coat of paint. Later, though, this young performer has an important line to deliver which he does quite well.
The director also needs to fix a clumsily staged moment when older brother is trying to keep younger brother from revealing information that must remain secret. The elder sibling rapidly moves his hand vertically across his throat a bunch of times – the universal sign for “Stop talking!” – but when the younger boy doesn’t catch on, older brother wouldn’t just settle for this and would take physical action.
One problem can be easily fixed. A picnic occurs near show’s end where a recent event should make the townspeople unhappy; instead, they seem to have gotten over the issue and are singing. There’ll be plenty of time to sing after the problem has been solved – and only then (and not until) should the music start.
In the film, Opal asks her father to tell her ten things about her mother. Here Benjamin has her ask for 13. Well, musicals always want to give you more – and BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE certainly does.