Bowdie, as Winn Dixie the giant pooch, eats the Preacher's dinner as Opal (Josie Todd) looks on in bewilderment. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

As the townspeople try to get Winn Dixie (Bowdie) the dog out of their store, Opal (Josie Todd) offers to adopt him. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Roz Ryan, Center, as Gloria Dump with Jay Hendrix, Jamie Mann, Josie Todd and Sophia Massa. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Bowdie The Dog Stars In "Because Of Winn Dixie" At The Goodspeed

Josie Todd as Opal finds a giant dog (Bowdie) in the Winn Dixie Supermarket as the townspeople look on. Now Playing at The Goodspeed. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Bowdie The Dog Stars In “Because Of Winn Dixie” At The Goodspeed

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci,  Critics On The Aisle

A new musical, Because of Winn Dixie, starring Bowdie the scene-stealing dog, Winn Dixie, is now playing at The Goodspeed in East Haddam, CT and has been extended through September 6th.

The show is based on a children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, with derivative music that’s twangy “country” fare, in combination with some blues, and lots of gospel thrown in for a few hand-clapping moments. Composer Duncan Sheik and Lyricist/Book Writer Nell Benjamin have done their best to create a tug-at-the-heartstrings piece, better suited for Goodspeed’s work-in-development theater, the Terris in Chester, CT.   

Because of Winn Dixie, as Directed by John Rando and Choreographed by Chris Bailey departs from the usually exciting musical comedy tap-dancing genre that’s been Goodspeed’s hallmark. Instead they’ve given the actors a plethora of scenes chock full of robot-like posing, moving folding chairs about the stage, rapturously gazing stage front at an invisible heaven, and running around in the dark with flashlights. Only renowned-trainer William Berloni’s direction of the remarkable and loveable Bowdie the dog makes this show appropriate for all ages.

Brian Michael Thomas* as Jiggs (the manager of the Winn Dixie Supermarket) doubles as onstage handler of Bowdie, which is essential, because Bowdie, thankfully, appears in most of the show.  This canine is a STAR!

Opal, the young girl who adopts Winn Dixie, is played by likeable Josie Todd* – it’s a difficult role with incessant dialogue, but she’s up to the challenge.  Opal’s father, The Preacher, is consistently preachy as portrayed by J. Robert Spencer*. There’s a strange relationship between father and daughter and she refers to him as “Sir” throughout – perhaps a reference to the reverend’s controlling persona.

Back to bigger-than life – literally and figuratively - dog Bowdie, who is astonishing as Winn Dixie.  Bill Berloni found Bowdie in 2014 when his family could no longer keep this smart, energetic dog. Bowdie made his acting debut when he was cast as the first dog to ever play Nana in Peter Pan Live on NBC.  Bowdie has previously played Winn Dixie in Because Of Winn Dixie at the Delaware Theatre Company in the spring of 2015 and The Alabama Shakespeare Festival in February of 2017. This impressive critter is described by Mr. Berloni as a cross between a poodle and something LARGE. (All animals that Mr. Berloni trains are rescues from shelters.)

The mid-size cast includes adorable Sophia Massa as Sweetie Pie Thomas and Crystal Kellogg* as Callie Thomas. The “mean boys” Stevie and Dunlap Dewberry are played by Jay Hendrix* and Jamie Mann*; Kacie Sheik* plays their single mother Jeanne. Chloë Cheers as Amanda Wilkinson has one of the few outstanding songs in the show “No One Watching” which she delivers forcefully and believably. Nicole Powell* as Mille Wilkinson and John Edwards* as Carl Wilkinson are two of the most non-complaining characters in the piece. Although they have deeper wounds than the other town residents, they remain positive and cheerful. John Edwards nails every sarcastic laugh line with his mellifluous voice.

David Poe* is delightful as the crazy pet shop owner Otis. He’s so at ease on stage it seems as if he’s just playing himself. A laid back five-star performance.

Isabel Keating* is librarian Franny Block. Ms. Keating’s “save your Confederate money, the South will rise again” character has hidden warmth that gives humanity to the uptight librarian.

Standout actress Roz Ryan* fills the stage with her presence as the woodland witch Gloria Dump. Her “Bottle Tree Blues’ number is worthy of the price of admission. Roz Ryan broke the record as Matron Mama Morton in the Broadway production of  Chicago for the longest running female lead in the history of that show.

Additional Townspeople are portrayed by Ryan Halsayer* and Mackenzie Warren*; Understudies are Ava Loughlin, Ben Stone-Zelman, Tess Santarsiero, Veronica James, and, Bailey the dog understudying for Winn Dixie.

Inspired Scenic Design is by 2012 Tony Award-winner Donyale Werle (Peter and the Starcatcher). Ms. Werle’s giant forest bottle tree and colorful stage surround inspire oohs and aahs even before the show begins. When the scenic design is combined with Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky and the Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, magic happens.  Growing greenery, wild rainstorms, running howling dog silhouettes all bring a fresh animation to the Goodspeed stage.

Costume design by Emily Rebholz is worthy of Goodwill resale shops but works perfectly for the woe-is-me characters that inhabit the town. Only Gloria Dump’s costume goes into the realm of clothing high art.

Sound design is by Jay Hilton who has designed countless productions at both The Terris Theatre and The Goodspeed.

Wig and Hair design (Gloria Dump’s is memorable) is created by the venerable Mark Adam Rampmeyer who has designed more than 20 productions for Goodspeed.

Music Supervisor Jason Hart and Music Director Adam Sousa work with 7 musicians and 6 alternates who play mostly string instruments to produce that down-home sound of the South. At times the music plays over the soloists.

It should be noted that although Bowdie is adorable, and there are several children in the cast, the subject matter is dreary at times, and we noticed many kids in the audience fidgeting when Bowdie was offstage. Not a show for everyone, but those who like melodrama and country music will be big fans of the unusual Because Of Winn Dixie.

Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).

Tickets are available through the Box Office (860-873-8668), open seven days a week, or online at www.goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located “just over the bridge” in East Haddam, CT.    *denotes member of Actors Equity Association