Tuck Everlasting continues at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Living forever is no picnic. That’s the philosophic message delivered to mixed effect in the new Broadway musical Tuck Everlasting, which moves through a rather long, pallid stretch to a poignant conclusion.
Based on the best-selling 1975 children’s novel of the same name by Natalie Babbitt, the musical tells of the Tuck family – Mae and Angus and their sons, Jesse and Miles – who once upon a time drank from a magic spring in a secluded forest. And lo and behold! They became immortal, never growing a minute older as well. Fearful that the spring will be discovered by others and misused or that they will be perceived as freaks, the Tucks have taken to living in seclusion.
Years later, Winnie Foster, an 11-year-old girl from the neighbouring town – whose widowed mum happens to own the forest – meets Jesse at the spring. He’s just returned from a ten-year sojourn looking for adventure and a respite from a life that’s become quite boring.
The two strike up a quick friendship. But when Mae and Angus arrive on the scene, they worry that Winnie will spill the beans on them; they carry her off to their home in the forest, which Winnie, an adventurous spirit, quickly finds quite exciting.
However, Winnie eventually faces a true dilemma. Jesse, in his fondness for her, asks her to wait until she is 17 and drink the magic water, and then they can live an endless life together. She must weigh the value of a life lived completely within the natural progression of time, including the joys and the sorrows that time brings, against the constancy of eternal life. It’s a deep and complicated question, one that none of us will presumably ever have to face. Still, it has resonance, as evidenced by the fact two movie versions have already been made of the story.
The script for the musical, by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, lets it unwind in fairly straightforward fashion. The interaction between Winnie and the Tucks is laced with mild jokes and moments of temperate drama but never becomes especially compelling. The songs, with jaunty rhythms by composer Chris Miller and plot-explaining lyrics by Nathan Tysen, are pleasant enough, but nothing emerges as memorable.
The cast for the most part, is appealing. Carolee Carmello and Michael Park make credible both the affection and angst felt by the elder Tucks, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as the buoyant Jesse and Robert Lenzi as the older and somewhat bruised Miles nicely capture the differences and the bonds between the two siblings. But the overall aim of the production, directed and choreographed with skill by Casey Nicholaw, seems to keep things from getting unduly provocative and to stay well within the parameters of family-friendly fare.
In the central role of Winnie, there is exceptionally confident work by Sarah Charles Lewis, who originated the role in the show’s premiere production at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work becomes more astounding when you read in the programme that Lewis herself is 11 years old. It took some suspension of disbelief to finally accept that this extraordinarily assured performer on stage was an 11-year-old.
There is an attempt to rivet up the suspense with the arrival of the villainous Man in the Yellow Suit, a carnival worker who has gotten wind of the spring and wants to profit from it. However, in the accomplished but overripe performance of Terrence Mann, the character at times is more annoying than either amusing or threatening. There’s also a bumbling local policeman, played by Fred Applegate, and his bumbling young deputy, played by Michael Wartella, whom we realise are adept comics, despite the wan assortment of shtick they’re given.
It’s in its last 15 minutes or so that Tuck Everlasting shakes off its quotidian nature. There’s a combination of mime and ballet, in which choreographer Nicholaw, known for the peppier dances of such shows as Something Rotten!, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, lets loose his inner Agnes De Mille, and gives us a graceful depiction of life measured by time.
It ends the show on a high note, and a genuinely moving one as well. It’s a welcome pay-off after most of the earlier stretches of Tuck Everlasting, which while not intolerable and indeed prettily embedded in Walt Spangler’s storybook set designs, seem to be going on forever.
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