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Theater review

Because of Winn Dixie is a winning show

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published December 7, 2013 at 11:20 p.m.

Because of Winn Dixie is a win.

The world premiere of the musical about a girl and her dog opened at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre this weekend in fetching form.

The show — based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Tony nominee for Legally Blonde) and music by Duncan Sheik (Tony and Grammy winner for Spring Awakening) — is directed by John Tartaglia (Tony nominee for Avenue Q).

A capable cast makes the children-and-canine-centric show cute, but also complex. Everyone in the small-town Florida church community (set in modern times, though the manager of the Winn-Dixie store proudly sports a mullet) is dealing with loss. Even sassy know-it-all Amanda, played perfectly by young scene-stealer Imari Hardon, has something she’s hiding — besides her nose in a book.

Julia Landfair was delightfully dry-humored as main character Opal, a 13-year-old moved to a new town by her minister father (Jonathan Rayson) after her mother abandons them. She sang about her woes in “Preacher’s Kid,” while calling the congregation that welcomes them with Frito Pie and Oreo Salad “children of the corn syrup.”

Opal picked up a stray pooch (named for the grocery store where she finds him), as well as a precious posse of playmates (Amanda; as well as Dunlap, played by Riley Costello; Stevie, played by Danny Phillips; and Sweetie Pie, played by Sydni Whitfield).

In the role of Winn Dixie was a sweet-natured, scruffy Irish wolfhound (listed in the program as “As Himself”), dutiful to the direction of Bill Berloni (a 2011 Tony Honor recipient). He followed. He kissed. He sat. He really liked sitting. He might have wanted a nap — we did see a yawn or two.

Sharing the stage with so much sweetness, adult actors had to work extra hard to let their presence be known. Aisha de Haas, in the role of eccentric neighbor Gloria, brought it, belting out “Bottle Tree Blues” while Tari Kelly, as overeager Jeanne, revealed she was hot for preacher in her number “You Need a Woman Around.” And Douglas Storm was doggone funny as grocery manager Jiggs, singing “Who Let the Dog In.”

Because of Winn Dixie will next be performed at 2 and 7 p.m. today. The musical will run through Dec. 29, with shows at 7 p.m. Wednesdays (including Christmas night) through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, with additional 2 p.m. performances Dec. 26 and Dec. 28, at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, at Sixth and Main streets in Little Rock. Tickets are $30-$60 (half-price for children each performance). A sign-interpreted performance for the hearing-impaired will be this Wednesday only. More information is available by calling (501) 378-0405 or at therep.org/attend.

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