The members of the Tuck family spend two hours trying to explain why it’s a curse to live forever, but it is only in the final 15 minutes of Tuck Everlasting that the musical drives home what a blessing it is to be mortal. It does this with an extraordinary, wordless ballet.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s staggering finale is the only scene that completely fulfills Tuck Everlasting’s obvious aim to be one of those musicals that appeal to children of all ages. Otherwise, the candy-colorful and energetic stage adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 novel seems largely suited for 11-year-old girls.
All production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
That’s the age of Winnie Foster (portrayed by actual 11-year-old Sarah Charles Lewis), a precocious girl who is feeling stuck in her rural New Hampshire home with her recently widowed mother (Valerie Wright) and her sympathetic grandmother (Pippa Pearthree) in the summer of 1893, when she escapes into the family-owned forest, and stumbles upon Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) drinking from a stream. Jesse is alarmed, and tells his family, and they promptly kidnap Winnie back to their cottage. Their fear is that Winnie has discovered their long-held secret. Jesse is drinking water from the same stream as he did when he was 17 – which, though he still looks 17 now, was 88 years earlier. The water made the entire Tuck family incapable of dying. His older brother Miles (Robert Lenzi) is perpetually 21; their parents, Mae (Carolee Carmello) and Angus (Michael Park), forever middle-aged.
The family hopes to convince Winnie to keep their secret. At first frightened and indignant, Winnie warms to the family, especially Jesse, seeing her time with them as an adventure. When Jesse suggests that she wait six years and then drink the water to be 17 with him forever, she seriously considers it.
Meanwhile, Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his new 15-year-old deputy Hugo (Michael Wartella) investigate Winnie’s disappearance, and a carnival barker (Terrence Mann), referred to as the Man in the Yellow Suit (because he wears a yellow suit) is hot on the Tuck’s trail, hoping to find the water, become immortal, strike it rich and rule the world.
Hewing closer to Babbitt’s children’s book than did the 2002 Disney film, the musical features a libretto by two well-established wits, Claudia Shear (Blown Sideways Through Life, a hilarious one-woman show about her many day jobs, and Dirty Blonde, a Broadway play about Mae West) and Tim Federle (a former Broadway dancer who for the past half dozen years has been an author of clever children’s books.) They are clearly responsible for some snappy exchanges:
Jesse: Pa, I did something really stupid last night.
Angus: Give yourself some credit, son. You do something really stupid very day.
Later, Mae says “Jesse Tuck, for the first time in 102 years, I am truly disappointed in you.”
But they haven’t thoroughly solved the main challenge of fleshing out and dramatizing a relatively slight novel whose appeal rests partly on its poetic descriptive passages.
The songwriting team of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, making their Broadway debut, are best known before this for The Burnt Part Boys, which was set in the coal country of West Virginia in 1962, with an entertaining mix mostly of bluegrass and ballads. There is a similar mix for Tuck Everlasting, even though it’s supposed to take place in New Hampshire. These songs are all pleasant enough, albeit not especially memorable, or even essential to the show, but they are delivered by a cast of charismatic pros, most notably Carolee Carmello, and presented in numbers with gorgeous design and enthusiastic choreography. Nicholaw — the director-choreography of The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten, Elf and Aladdin — knows how to put over a production number.
Tuck Everlasting had the potential to explore any number of intriguing repercussions of never growing old, for the adults and precocious children to chew on. One song, “Time,” sung in different verses by the four Tucks, stands out for doing just that.
Instead, we see an exploration of the exact opposite in the finale, in which, through dance, we see Winnie after her encounter with the Tuck family — growing up, growing old, having her own family, seeing her loved ones die – simple and startling and beautiful and persuasive, leaving the audience in tears for having witnessed nothing less than the Ages of Woman.
Tuck Everlasting is on stage at the Broadhurst 9235 W. 44th St., New York, NY 10036, between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Tickets and details
Tuck Everlasting. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle based on the novel by Natalie Babbett, music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume design by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Brian Ronan, orchestrations by John Clancy. Featuring 11-year-old Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie Foster, Carolee Carmello(Mae) Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Jesse), Michael Park (Angus), Terrence Mann (The Man in the Yellow Suit) Fred Applegate (Constable Joe), Robert Lenzi (Miles), Michael Wartella (Hugo), Valerie Wright (Mother), Pippa Pearthree (Nana), Timothy J. Alex, Chloë Campbell, Callie Carter, Ben Cook, Elizabeth Margaret Crawford, Deanna Doyle, Brandon Espinoza, Lisa Gajda, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Christopher Gurr, Neil Haskell, Matt Meigs, Heather Parcells, Justin Patterson, Marco Schittone, Brooklyn Shuck, Jennifer Smith, Kathy Voytko, and Sharrod Williams. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.