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THEATER

Rep goes to the dog in Winn Dixie musical debut

By JACK W. HILL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published December 5, 2013 at 2:49 a.m.

from-left-danny-phillips-stevie-riley-costello-dunlap-dewberry-julia-nightingale-landfair-opal-imari-hardon-amanda-and-sydni-whitfield-sweetie-pie-star-in-the-arkansas-repertory-theatres-production-of-because-of-winn-dixie

From left: Danny Phillips (Stevie), Riley Costello (Dunlap Dewberry), Julia Nightingale Landfair (Opal), Imari Hardon (Amanda) and Sydni Whitfield (Sweetie Pie) star in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Because of Winn Dixie.

An old, oft-repeated theatrical maxim advises against working onstage with children and dogs.

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre, however, is more than willing to do both. And while at it, it will present a new play - Because of Winn Dixie, a world premiere musical - much as it did a season ago with Treasure Island.

John Tartaglia is directing the show; the book and lyrics were written by Neil Benjamin, based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel. Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik (who won Tony and Grammy awards for the show Spring Awakening) wrote the music and Jason Hart is the musical director. Sheik and Hart wrote the orchestrations and vocal arrangements. Tartaglia was a Tony Award nominee for Avenue Q and Benjamin was a Tony nominee for Legally Blonde. William Berloni, the show’s animal director and trainer, is a 2011 Tony Honor recipient.

“This show has been long in the making,” Tartaglia says. “Especially to have the opportunity to premiere a new musical at such a supportive theater, and to have this big box of possibilities, so we’re not limited. We can kind of explore and see what works in a very kind of nurturing and safe arena.

“Because with the element of the animals, with most shows, the animal comes out and is maybe onstage for a couple of minutes, but the challenge we have with this show is, the dog is onstage for approximately an hour and 45 minutes. And he’s the lead character, a vital part of the storytelling. He’s as much of a character to the audience as any of the human actors are. It’s kind of a big, wonderful experiment that we’re feeling good about.”

And such a theatrical experiment has not been tried before, Benjamin notes, emphasizing that the play’s creative team is intent on remaining true to DiCamillo’s book - and that none of them or the cast members have seen the 2005 movie that was made from the book.

The musical features 13 cast members and two Irish wolfhounds: Taran, plus an understudy, Cally.

Julia Nightingale Landfair plays Opal, the girl who finds an abandoned dog outside a Southern supermarket and gives the store’s name to the dog, which she takes home and introduces to her father, portrayed by Jonathan Rayson.

Berloni and Cally joined the creative team and cast members to explain their roles. Well, Berloni did the explaining and Cally, a canine about the size of a Great Dane, took the opportunity to sink below the level of the table, perhaps to nap.

Berloni, who has worked with animals in 24 Broadway shows in 35 years, including the current shows Annie and A Christmas Story, began his career with Sandy in the original Annie. He is also the director of animal behavior at the Humane Society of New York.

The dogs are equally skilled, or that is to say, unskilled, at acting, it turns out.

“This is it,” Berloni says. “We’re about to develop some skills, though. The dogs are equally skilled, but have different personalities, and we’re going to be finding which one will work better with [Landfair]. We have to bond her to these dogs, so she has to be as good a trainer as we are. She does sleepovers with them, eats her lunch with the dogs, she does everything with the dogs. We’re trying to find which one will be the best match for this relationship.”

Landfair, an eighth-grader at Episcopal Collegiate School, is a five-year veteran of the Rep’s Summer Musical Theater Intensive and has appeared in the Rep’s productions of Les Miserables, Tommy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Christmas Story.

“I’ve worked with both the dogs,” Landfair says. “Cally is more lovey-dovey on everyone, and she’s a kisser, and Taran is more kind of to himself, more aloof. But they’re both super sweet.”

Rayson, as Opal’s father, whom she calls Preacher, is returning to the Rep. He first worked in Little Rock in the role of Dan in Next to Normal two seasons ago.

“The Rep is a great resource for young performers,” Rayson says. “[Landfair] has been doing work here since she was 8. They have a great training program where they can learn their craft before they go off to high school and college.”

Though the play is being staged in December, there is no Christmas connection, although there are relevant family issues.

“It’s a story about how we all need each other,” Rayson says. “The magic of the show is that I don’t know that I’m being drawn in.”

The writer of the show observes that the word “sappy” will not be used to describe the story of a girl and her dog.

“There will be enough sappy stuff happening in the holidays,” Benjamin adds, laughing. “There will be no sappy stuff in this show.”

The Rep’s producing artistic director, Bob Hupp, and the cast and creative team will engage in a panel discussion of the play in the Clinton School of Public Service’s Distinguished Speaker Series, noon to 1 p.m. today. For reservations, call the school, 1200 President Clinton Ave., at (501) 683-5239.

Hupp and Tartaglia will discuss the musical from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m. today before the play’s preview performance at 7.

A special Little Rock Family matinee will be presented from 12:45 to 2 p.m. Saturday. From 1 to 2 p.m., the magazine will take over the lobby with crafts and games, vendors and prizes, and the Humane Society of Pulaski County mobile adoption unit will have pets available for adoption from 12:45 to 1:45. Donations of newspapers, animal-safe toys and Purina dog and cat food will be accepted at the event.

Because of Winn Dixie

7 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays (including Christmas night) through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. performances this Saturday, Dec. 26 and Dec. 28; through Dec. 29, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Sixth and Main streets, Little Rock. (Preview performance at 7 p.m. today with pre-show director’s talk from 6:15 to 6:45) Tickets: $30-$60; ($5 off advance purchases through today) Sign-interpreted performance for the hearing impaired on Wednesday (Dec. 11 only) (501) 378-0405 therep.org/attend

Weekend, Pages 36 on 12/05/2013

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