Bowdie brings the applause in ‘Because of Winn Dixie’

"Because of Winn Dixie" runs at the Goodspeed Opera House through Sept. 5.

"Because of Winn Dixie" runs at the Goodspeed Opera House through Sept. 5.

Goodspeed Opera House /Contributed photo

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam: If ever a dog deserved a review, it’s Bowdie as Winn Dixie at the Goodspeed Opera House. Here’s a dog with stage presence that other theatrical dogs can only dream of. He’s got star power from tail to nose and best of all he is really BIG. When he first appears, he seems larger than life. He sits like a pyramid — substantial, immovable. It’s part of his mystique. You’re already hooked on him and as soon as he moves, you watch his every move. He cocks his head and you applaud; he barks; you applaud. He is in complete control of the stage, the actors, and the audience. There is no doubt about it — Bowdie is the star of this show called “Because of Winn Dixie.” Dog trainer Bill Berloni has done an incredible job with Bowdie. Kudos to both.

Two things need to be addressed here. First the musical itself and secondly the Goodspeed production. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel and the film of the same title, the show features book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Duncan Sheik. The staging seems to have lost some of the power of the original novel. The positive Christian messages have been somewhat diluted with chaotic action or other stage business.

Focusing on a preacher and his daughter Opal who have moved to Florida to set up home and congregation, there are serious issues and mysteries in the plot. Unlike the staging of “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” (so much of this production reminds me of that play) the issues don’t get the kind of depth they deserve. Issues like abandonment, being judgmental, alcoholism and death of a sibling are handled with kid gloves and it’s obvious. That’s the problem. It’s too obvious.

Some scene transitions are so awkward that they make you wonder why the scenes changed suddenly or at all. Overall, the music is blasé and the lyrics cliché and the choreography forgettable. The heart and soul of the story is good, but it still needs to be fleshed out more. Not much is memorable, but the total experience is most definitely memorable because of the big dog. The audience loves Bowdie. The adults love him; the kids love him; the critics love him. It’s as if nothing else matters. You’ll want to see him again and again.

As for the Goodspeed production, this show has already been performed in Delaware, but it still needs to be a more seamless experience. W.C. Fields was right when he was credited with saying “Never work with children or animals.” All else pales in this musical production. The cast must have already peaked when I caught the show this weekend. They performed well, but no one person stood out. Except for Bowdie’s every move, applause was slow coming.

Josie Todd plays Opal, J. Robert Spencer is her father and the preacher. Others in the cast are: Isabel Keating, David Poe, Roz Ryan, Crystal Kellogg, Brian Michael Thomas, Sophia Massa, Kacie Sheik, Jay Hendrix, Jamie Mann, Nicole Powell, John Edwards, Chloe Cheers Ryan Halsaver and Mackenzie Warren.

The production is directed by John Rando with music direction by Adam Souza and choreography by Chris Bailey. Donyale Werle’s set design is a combination of projected images and a fascinating tree that dominates the small stage. The movement in the projected images makes for much needed attention. The image of the books on the wall for the library scene might as well be invisible.

The bottom line is that the show needs more work, but the families that attended the show were delighted and the children eager to take pictures with a large picture poster of Bowdie. This is a great idea as a summer treat before heading back to school. It plays through Sept. 5. Box office: 860-873-8668

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: