My Variety Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie'

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Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up.

But “Winn Dixie,” based on a prize-winning 2000 children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo, is a gentler sort of tale — and show — compared to the showbiz pizazz of the 1976 hit “Annie.” The charms of this show (now having its fourth regional outing in six years) are easy-going, its storytelling homespun and its scope intimate. 

It’s a cozy show distinguished by a well-crafted book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (lyricist of “Mean Girls” and “Legally Blonde”) and beguiling melodies by Duncan Sheik — his third show on the boards in less than six months following Off Broadway’s “Alice By Heart” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” Like “Bees,” Sheik creates a musical world that taps into the Southern traditions of gospel, hymns, country sounds, blues and folk — with a touch of Broadway, too.

This musical soundscape is fitting for the story of an earnest preacher (J. Robert Spencer) who arrives at a small Florida town with his 13-year-old daughter, Opal (Josie Todd), who is uncertain why her mother walked out on the family years earlier and challenged by her father’s unwillingness to talk about it.

Adopting a stray dog that she names after the grocery store where they met, she finds the canine has a way to connect to others, too, especially those who feel lost, lonely or unloved. That includes Otis, a music-loving pet store owner who spent time in jail (singer-songwriter David Poe; wonderful); Gloria, an eccentric loner with a drinking past (Roz Ryan); a sympathetic librarian (Isabel Keating); Amanda, a young girl harboring a terrible guilt (Chloe Cheers); and a trio of scene-stealing youngsters (Jay Hendrix, Sophia Massa and especially Jamie Mann, in an assured, natural performance).