It’s an old show biz maxim, and true, that an adult cannot expect full attention if he or she is working on stage with a dog or a child.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, Nell Benjamin and Duncan Sheik’s cheerfully charming little musical at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, gives a fighting chance to Joilet Harris, Christopher Ryan Grant, Clarke Thorell, Carolyn Mignini, and others because all but Thorell’s part are written broadly enough to rate time in the spotlight. Still, ingenuously natural Kylie McVey, as a pre-teen, Opal, trying to get a foothold in a sleepy new town in which her single father is engaged as a pastor, and Bowdie, a talented airedale who serves as the title character, grab much of the focus and become the source of all concern and much of our pleasure.
Luckily, Benjamin and Sheik don’t aim for a work of art as much as they tell a sweet, entertaining, and unannoyingly predictable story that holds your interest and wins you over with its unadorned sentimental simplicity. Benjamin, working from Kate DiCamillo’s novel and Wayne Wang’s movie, shrewdly maintains the tone of a children’s book as she writes her tight and engaging script. Benjamin is adept at getting all the eccentricity and lore of the backwater town in her book without going overboard and making anyone or anything outlandish or odd for odd’s sake. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge helps by stressing the normality and ordinariness of the town so that what is special, or what looms as mysterious in the minds of the kids Opal meets, fits with the quiet setting while showing how one quirk, peculiarity, or blot on one’s personal history becomes exaggerated in a child’s imagination and part of the local mythology that even the adults perpetuate.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE unwinds lazily, as if it is affected by the slow pace of the near-no-ocean Florida town in which Opal’s father (Clarke Thorell) was hired as a new preacher. Opal’s adventures, or her stray dog companion Winn-Dixie’s curiosity, lead the child to the doorstep of everyone others fear or misunderstand. The pet shop owner has a prison record for crimes he planned and committed. A woman is branded a witch because her yard is decorated with bottles hanging from its trees, liquor bottles from her years as an alcoholic. The librarian is more cultured than most in the town, and she has a phobia about dogs, Winn-Dixie included. These outcasts become colorful figures that give BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE character and add to the musical and dramatic aspects of Dodge’s production.
Nell Benjamin’s lyrics can capture a character, as in Miss Franny’s “Sweet Life” or Gloria’s “Bottle Tree Blues,” but some of her songs are given to narration and telling back stories musically instead of in plain spoken language. The lyrics of those songs can be trite and familiar. Some songs can grow from being too simplistic to emotionally revealing, but in general, Benjamin’s lyrics are ordinary and exactly what you’d expect from a scene or situation. The writer does a much more cogent and thorough job on BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE book. Read full review >> [Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, DE] April 8-May 10, 2015; delawaretheatre.org.