All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“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 Benjamin facetiously has its denizens nominate as “the world’s most awesome.” The relaxed storytelling lets you sidle into the place and discover it just as Opal must. Nicholas Barasch and Evan Dampman as the typically boyish, and not very bright or worldly Dewberrry brothers, are Opal’s guide to the legends and customs of their burg, and they are amazed as the risks Opal takes as she befriends some of the town’s long-time outcasts.
Being someone yanked from a place where she was comfortable to a new city that is a step backward from her last home and where she is not inclined to seek any of the local kids, not even the Dewberrys, as friends makes Opal sympathetic to those who have been labelled pariahs. And there’s Winn-Dixie, the stray dog she acquires when she finds him creating havoc in a supermarket, who promulgates Opal’s risks and adventures.
“Because of Winn-Dixie” works on a lot of levels. You have the basic plot of Opal trying to entertain herself as her father works hard to make the town happy they hired him as their preacher and, therefore, unable to give her undivided attention. You have a dog that is not mischievous but who likes to explore, as dogs will, and foments a series of scrapes. You have a town that is set in its ways and prejudiced against some of its residents, but more of habit and misinformation than from cruelty and meanness. And you have Opal meeting and liking the “untouchables” so that she becomes a catalyst for making the nice town nicer and more inclusive.
It all wins your heart and gives you enjoyment, as Benjamin and Dodge find the right touch for every sequence and situation. Nothing stings too painfully, yet nothing is bland or mundane. Dodge’s production has a spirit, a tone that keeps you going. While McVey gets excellent support, her artless, non-histrionic gives a solid and pleasing center to the show. McVey doesn’t try to be too adorable or stagy. It is her essence of being a curious, courageous, but everyday child that drives the production and fortifies its core. Bowdie is always cute and precious. Other children are playing types, as doing it well. Several of the adults are written to be unusual or bizarre. Thorell’s preacher has to play things too close to the line. From a production point of view, it helps to have a child performer you believe is only a little girl poking going about her business, poking into things, bopping about town with her dog, and causing or getting into things she doesn’t expect and she doesn’t judge. At least from someone else’s point of view.
McVey fills that bill. I even like it, and I’m not mentioning this to be critical but because I was charmed, that when the children dance together, McVey is one with the fewest moves and least rhythm. Intentional or not, it adds to the naturalness of her portrayal.
Opal’s adventures, or 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 Dewberrys fear both of them. The librarian is more cultured than most in the town, and she has a phobia about dogs, Winn-Dixie included, the less-than-domesticated Winn-Dixie perhaps more than most.
These outcasts become colorful figures that give “Because of Winn-Dixie” character. They also add to both the musical and dramatic aspects of Dodge’s production. Opal getting acquainted with the town or her father trying to secure his place as a pastoral leader, especially as he heads into a new life after his wife, Opal’s mother, abandons them, are enough to make a story, but that story would be one-note. “Winn-Dixie” needs the variety it gets from the ex-con, accused witch, and old-fashioned librarian being in Opal’s midst. Benjamin and Dodge weave these characters into the play with skilled seamlessness. You hear so much about them before you see them, especially Gloria, the “witch,” you are as curious as Opal to encounter them.
They don’t disappoint, especially Joilet Harris as an exuberant Earth mother of a woman who has wisdom born of experience to impart and a sad but redemptive tale to tell, and Christopher Ryan Grant as the punished and reformed miscreant who sings beautifully while strumming his guitar and seeks only peace in his new, unwalled, unbarred setting.
Harris, dressed in an outfit that can only be described as New Age jumble, is a warm, embracing Gloria who maintains a jubilant glow even as she speaks repentantly to Opal about her bout with alcoholism, how it led to the death of one of her children, her time in prison, and the reason she hangs bottles on trees. Each clear bottle, she points out, contains a note that reveals one of her sins. She says the wealth of bottles only indicates how much sin she feels driven to confess. She offers Opal and another child the catharsis of jotting something they feel bad about, putting their statement in a bottle and pointing out places the bottles could be hung. This episode makes for a lovely sequence in Benjamin’s play.
Joilet Harris is also a stirring singer, and her rendition of Benjamin and Sheik’s “Bottle Tree Blues” is a highlight of Dodge’s production.
Grant’s released jailbird is of a quieter cast. Although Otis is by no means threatening, his past keeps townspeople from his store, and Opal is warned by the Dewberry boys that Otis is a menace who might harm her. Opal’s dad also takes a wary view of the pet shop operator and is angry when he learns Opal has been working at his store to work off some debts she’s incurred while buying things for Winn-Dixie.
Grant, though his voice, posture, and manner indicate Otis’s rough edges, endows his character with candor and sincerity that shows depth beneath the gruffness. His guitar solos are a treat, especially when he heads up to the bandstand and joins Gina Giachero and her fine orchestra for rousing numbers such as “You Can’t Run” and “Searchin’.”
Carolyn Mignini, though strict and schoolmarmish as the librarian, Miss Franny, softens into a wise counselor who comes to accept even Winn-Dixie and Gloria, who she’s resented since the time that Gloria crashed her car into the side wall of Franny’s library.
Even when Franny is firm with the children, Mignini exposes a maternal side to her, a penchant for always wanted to teach and to mold. She is more than glad to lend Opal books on dog training.
Nicholas Barasch, although looking more young adult than early teen, brings life and energy to his scenes as Dunlap Dewberry, especially in dance numbers. Dunlap is the oldest of the town children and is always punching his younger brother, Stevie’s, arm to tease him or tell him to shut up and not reveal so much. Evan Dampman’s Stevie has a mischievous look reminiscent of Beaver Cleaver’s friend, Whitey, and is good at looking confused and being a bit rambunctious.
Clarke Thorell shows steadiness as the Preacher as she tries to compensate for Opal’s abandonment by her mother, about whom he won’t talk or answer questions, while trying to guide her to happiness in their new town by recommending friends and accepting Winn-Dixie. Thorell conveys his character’s traditional values as he attempts to be what the community needs him to be, sometimes at the expense of spending time with Opal or listening as she challenges religion and town attitudes by befriending Gloria and Otis.
Leonay Shepherd is properly precocious and obnoxious as the bibliophile Amanda Wilkinson. Kimberly Fairbanks and David Jennings also do fine as Amanda’s well-bred and watchful parents. Fairbanks has a moving scene in which she talks about a personal burden. Jennings projects respectability as well as pride in his bookish daughter.
Maggie Lakis shows the loneliness and need for attention of Jeanne Dewberry, whose husband has left for another woman. Brian Michael Hoffman and Jenna Pastuszek are funny as the everyday folks who have almost no vanity but take joy in spoiling their little girl, played cutely by Anya Rothman.
Bowdie is a crowd-pleaser as Winn-Dixie. Big and frisky, Bowdie has canine authenticity and follows his trainer, William Berloni’s, direction well. Bowdie also seems to have a special relationship with Hoffman, who he keeps leaping on, licking, or knocking down.
In Duncan Sheik’s score, you hear the dominant backbeats, insistent guitars, and bass highlights that informed his hit musical, “Spring Awakening.” Sheik’s score is purposeful and original.
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’s” book.
“Because of Winn-Dixie” runs through Sunday, May 10, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, Del. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. Extra shows are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, May 9 and 7 p.m. Sunday, May 10. Tickets range from $55 to $45 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or by visiting www.delawaretheatre.org.