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story.lead_photo.caption The heartwarming novel and family movie Because of Winn Dixie comes to life on stage in time for the holiday season at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre this week.

The performer responsible for the title role in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s latest production is just like any other actor. He’s expected to show up to rehearsals. He’ll run through the script dozens of times before opening night. He’s even got an understudy. The only difference is that if he gets tired and lays down in the middle of a scene, there’s not much the rest of the crew can do about it.

Taran, who plays the role of Winn Dixie in Because of Winn Dixie, is a 150-pound Irish wolfhound. He and understudy Callie have been rehearsing for weeks with animal director Bill Berloni for the world premiere of this Friday at The Rep.

The production brings Broadway vets Nell Benjamin and director John Tartaglia to the downtown Little Rock theater. Both have both been nominated for Tonys; Benjamin as lyricist for Legally Blonde, and Tartaglia for his puppeteer roles in Avenue Q.

The musical has been a long time in the works, and when it opens Friday night, Tartaglia says he and his team will be paying very close attention to see if any parts need to be tweaked. “Usually with musicals you get a chance to sit down with the script and talk through the show and sing the songs and everyone decides if they have a musical,” he says. “But you can’t really do that with dogs … We’re going to be watching that audience very carefully to see which emotional moments are working, what they’re paying attention to, whether we really have them in the story and what we can do coming out of that.”

Working with live dogs is also a new challenge for the cast. Tartaglia says that each actor was chosen not only for his chemistry with the dogs in addition to acting and vocal talent, but also his ability to think on his feet. Again, you never know when the dog might just lay down in the middle of a scene, or otherwise stray from the script.

The two human characters central to the story are the preacher, played by Jonathan Rayson, and his daughter Opal, played by Julia Nightingale Landfair, a regular at The Rep. Both have spent a lot of time offstage getting to know the dogs. “My character in particular has times when I’m loud,” Rayson says. “It’s a tricky situation to make sure the dogs trust me and know that it’s safe in that situation.”

One fun part of that getting-to-know-the-dogs process? “We have sleepovers,” Landfair says.

Because of Winn Dixie opens Friday and runs through Dec. 29 with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For pricing and special events, visit therep.org. Read more from behind the scenes with the cast and crew at offtherecord.syncweekly.com.

Print Headline: Every dog has its play

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