Although I've become a cat person, when I heard that a live dog would be taking the stage in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's adaptation of "Because of Winn Dixie," high anticipation set in. And not just because I thought it would be cute to see a precious dog take the stage, but I actually thought it would be cool to see a canine put its acting chops to work.
And it was, but although the four-legged star will steal your heart in matter of seconds, the play about so much more-- much, much more.
The Rep's third play of the season and last one of 2013-- directed by John Tartaglia, written by Nell Benjamin and animal direction by Bill Berloni-- got its start on Dec. 4, offering a nice reprieve for families from the holiday madness with its delighful score (original music written by Duncan Sheik), sweet story led by canine Winn Dixie and spirited performances from Opal (played by Julia Landfair) and her preacher father (played by Jonathan Rayson).
What's extra special about this production, based on the award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo, is its the first pre-Broadway musical starring a live dog in a leading role. Taran (and understudy Cally), both Irish Wolfhounds, were cast in the title role of the production, trained by Broadway’s foremost animal trainer and 2011 Tony Honor recipient, Berloni.
"Because Winn Dixie" takes place in the small-town church community of Naomi, Fla., in present time. From the beginning, we are introduced to several town locals dealing with a loss of some sort, with a focus on the smart-talkin' and strong-minded 13-year-old Opal who is starting fresh with her preacher dad after her mother abandons them.
We hear about her woes in the song "Preacher's Kid" while she is welcomed by a colorful group of characters, like Jiggs Thomas (played by Douglas Storm), the mullet-sporting manager of the local Winn Dixie grocery store, and a lively group of playmates-- Dunlap Dewberry (Riley Costello), his brother Stevie Dewberry (Danny Phillips), Sweetie Pie Thomas (Sydni Whitfield) and Amanda Wilkinson (Imari Hardon).
Everything changes when a stray dog makes his presence known at the Winn Dixie where Opal goes on her first shopping trip upon their arrival. A moving set shows the true chaos that erupts as he runs through the store. The cute, comical scene is highlighted with "Who Let the Dog In" and then the audience is introduced to the four-legged star, when, of course, everyone's hearts melt.
From then on, Opal takes the good-natured, shaggy Irish Wolfhound in her care (much to her father's dismay at first) and it's plain to see how obedient he is to trainer Berloni. He closely followed Opal with ease, gave a few kisses here and there and sat-- something he enjoyed quite a bit.
The younger characters play a strong role in the production, but a few of the adult actors really shine, especially neighbor Gloria (Aishia de Hass), who some of the neighorhood kids think is a witch. As it turns out, she really isn't-- she's just a little eccentric. She goes all out with the song "Bottle Tree Blues" and actually becomes a source of comfort for Opal and the very studious Amanda, who later reveals the drowning accident of her little brother.
Someone else who provides a little relief-- with his acoustic guitar-- is Otis (Gabe Bowling). While he is quiet for much of the production, when he starts strumming his guitar and singing one of the many thoughtful songs concocted by Sheik, including the memorable tune "Searching," it seems to ease everyone's pain, even for just a little bit.
At the end of the day, it's really the loveable Winn Dixie who brings this small town of locals-- each going through their own battles-- together and helps many let go of their problems. Consensus: a feel-good musical for families this holiday season!
There is still time to see the show. The Rep extended its run until Jan. 5.
Purchase tickets for the remaining shows online here, call (501) 378-0405 or visit the box office at 601 Main St., Little Rock. Get a preview below.