Because of Winn-Dixie, a family-friendly musical based on Kate DiCamillo's popular novel, is currently on a brief run at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Its multi-award-wining collaborators' credentials are impressive; director John Rando, book and lyricist Nell Benjamin, composer Duncan Sheik, and the gathering of actors -- ASF newcomers and veterans along with some local talent, and a dog named Bowdie [trained by William Berloni] -- take audiences on a journey with plenty of life lessons.
The plot revolves around a young girl named Opal [Gabriella Pizzolo] who brings home a dog she names Winn-Dixie after the supermarket where she found him; Opal and her father, the Preacher [Adam Monley] have moved to a small Florida town to start a new life and are feeling down and out of place. The opening number "Strays" encapsulates their condition, and shows how many of the town's inhabitants also have their problems and issues with being accepted socially. As their stories unfold gradually, one is reminded of similar conditions facing many of this world's refugees. And Opal's persistence -- with the assistance of Winn-Dixie -- helps her make new friends, and has them ultimately face their respective demons and become a community.
...Winn-Dixie avoids most of the schmaltz and excesses of many musicals with children in the central roles; it is to their credit that the production respects the kids' points of view and has young actors who are up to the task. Ms. Pizzolo and Leonay Shepherd as a morose bookworm Amanda are particularly on point in their contrasting roles.
The play's journey began at Arkansas Rep in 2013 and has been developed at various regional theatres since then with an aim to eventually open on Broadway. Still a work-in-progress, it has much in its favor: the aforementioned respect for issues of youth, an assortment of recognizably credible characters, an acceptance that there are no easy answers to what life and our actions thrust at us, and an unsaccharined belief that goodness can be found in everyone no matter their circumstances.
While much of the musical score stays too downbeat and somber for much of the first act's lengthy exposition, there are several numbers that push the energy when it is most needed. -- "Bottle Tree Blues" is masterfully rendered by Roz Ryan as a local eccentric known to the townsfolk as the Witch; "Sweet Life" tells the achievements of librarian Franny Block's [Carolyn Mignini is terrific] ancestor during the Civil War; and the pet-shop man Otis [Joe Carroll] tries to quietly turn his life around in a couple of songs that leave audiences wanting more from this character.
And, of course, there is the rambunctious dog. From his first appearance, the audience welcomed him with a chorus of "Awwww", and greeted his every on-stage moment with approval. To see Winn-Dixie respond to the various cast members, it is no wonder that Opal's skeptical father warms up to him as we do.