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'Winn Dixie' delights 

Rep stages premiere of musical.

click to enlarge BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE: Danny Phillips and Julia Nightingale Landfair star with Taran as Winn Dixie in The Rep's production. image
  • BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE: Danny Phillips and Julia Nightingale Landfair star with Taran as Winn Dixie in The Rep's production.

"Because of Winn Dixie" is a compelling, richly textured world-premiere musical full of fine performances, great songs and enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. Its star ostensibly is a lumbering Irish wolfhound named for the grocery store where he was found, but while Winn Dixie is on stage for most of both 50-minute acts, he is more prop than actor.

And that's just fine; he's amazingly well behaved and compliant — thanks to the expertise of "animal director" Bill Berloni. But he's not an "actor" like Toto, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Arnold Ziffel. Much of the plot centers on Winn Dixie; but his acting consists of lying down, walking around and lumbering on and off the stage. Just wanted to get that straight.

The real star of the show is Julia Landfair, who plays Opal, the new-preacher-in-town's daughter who finds Winn Dixie and convinces her dad to let her keep him, even though she can't make any headway in training him. An eighth-grader at Episcopal Collegiate School, Landfair is one of three actors in this musical who are veterans of the Rep's Summer Musical Theatre Intensive (SMTI) program run by Nicole Capri. The others are Danny Phillips (Stevie Dewberry) and Sydni Whitfield (Sweetie Pie Thomas), two of Opal's friends and two of the brightest spots in the cast. That these youngsters are more than ready and able to contribute to a major holiday-season, main-stage Rep production is further proof of the amazing youth theater culture here and the power of SMTI.

You get to meet many of the cast members as they come to schmooze their new pastor (Jonathan Rayson) with such delights as Oreo salad. Opal laments the stereotypes she deals with as she beautifully sings "Preacher's Kid," and she and her dad are both dealing with the wounds of their mom/wife deserting the family. All the cast members, in fact, are trying to bear up through trying times, and it's those stories, which unfold gradually, that provide the rich plot textures that make "Winn Dixie" a success.

Those stories ... and the music. Rep-goers are the beneficiaries of an all-star team that created this musical, which is based on a novel by Kate DiCamillo. The lyrics are by Nell Benjamin, a Tony nominee for "Legally Blonde." The music is by Duncan Sheik, who began his career as a minor mid-'90s pop star (search YouTube for "Barely Breathing" — you'll almost surely know it) before turning to theater. He wrote the music for "Spring Awakening," a Broadway production; the original cast album won a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 2008 and the production won two Tonys, including Best Original Score (Music).

There are highlights galore throughout "Winn Dixie," none better than the amazing vocal performance of the unfortunately named Gloria Dump (Aisha de Haas) on "Bottle Tree Blues," performed under a stunningly beautiful bottle tree set.

"Because of Winn Dixie," directed by John Tartaglia (Tony nominee for "Avenue Q"), will run through Jan. 5, 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, Dec. 28, Jan. 2 and Jan. 4 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, at Sixth and Main streets in Little Rock. Tickets are $30-$60 (half-price for children). For more information, call 501-378-0405 or visit www.therep.org.

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