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A new musical adapted from Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 fantasy novel (which became a 2002 Disney film) is the latest show to arrive on Broadway under the assumption that the appetite for theatrical fare geared to children and their well-heeled parents is limitless. The story of an 11-year-old girl encountering a family in the woods who seem perfectly normal except that they’re immortal, Tuck Everlasting is a sweet concoction that feels in over its head amidst the flashier delights of Wicked and Matilda, among many others. Although the show, which premiered last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, boasts solid production values and professionalism thanks to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and a cast filled with Broadway veterans, it’s likely destined for an all-too-finite life on the Great White Way.
The young heroine of the story set in 1893 is 11-year-old Winnie (Sarah Charles Lewis), who lives with her overprotective widowed mother (Valerie Wright) and tart-tongued grandmother (Pippa Pearthree). One day a carnival barker, the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann), appears to announce the arrival of a traveling fair. When Winnie’s mother forbids her to go, the rebellious girl runs off into the woods, where she nearly takes a drink from a spring but is stopped by a teenage boy. He’s 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), who lives in the woods along with his parents Mae (Carolee Carmello) and Angus (Michael Park) and his 21-year-old brother Miles (Robert Lenzi).
Of course, those ages aren’t exactly accurate, since nearly a century earlier the Tucks discovered that the water in the spring has magical properties bestowing everlasting life. Fearful that their secret will be revealed, the Tucks take Winnie away with them. She discovers that they’re a loving, close-knit clan — a century or so of togetherness will have that effect — but that immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. This is made evident in songs like “The Wheel,” in which the family patriarch sings, “You can’t live without dying/So you can’t call this living what we got,” and “Time,” Miles’ lament for the young son he lost when his wife spirited the boy away after coming to believe that her husband was cursed.
Depending on your point of view, the show’s central plot element is either creepy or charming. It concerns Jesse’s desire not to go through immortal life alone. To that end, he asks Winnie to take a drink of the magical water — but only in six years, when her age will match his, and they’ll be able to live happily, and literally, ever after.
Naturally, you can’t have a children’s story without a villain, and the dastardly Man in the Yellow Suit fills the bill. Once he discovers the Tucks’ secret, he’s determined to find the source of their longevity so he can use it not just to live forever but also to make himself very rich. Meanwhile, investigating Winnie’s disappearance is the village constable (Fred Applegate) and his bumbling deputy (Michael Wartella), whose song “You Can’t Trust a Man” is a comic highlight.
The book — co-written by Claudia Shear (working here in a far different stylistic vein than her previous Broadway show, Dirty Blonde) and novelist Tim Federle (Better Nate Than Ever) — is more serviceable than inspired. Its level of sophistication is illustrated by the evening’s single biggest laugh, in which the grandmother shouts at the villain, “You’re an evil banana!” The tuneful country and folk music-influenced score by composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen is equally unmemorable.
Director Nicholaw — also represented on Broadway by The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten! — keeps things moving at a sprightly pace, although he overdoes the carnival-style dance sequences that are clearly intended to provide visual distraction. The design elements are impressive, especially Walt Spangler’s lavishly arboreal set dominated by a giant tree.
The performers put the fanciful material over with admirable energy and emotional conviction, with Mann suitably hammy as the brightly clad villain and 30-year-old Keenan-Bolger somehow still looking boyish enough to pass for 17 (or technically, 104). But the real find is Lewis, who amazingly is 11 years old in real life and whose precocious talent suggests that she may secretly be immortal herself.
The show’s undeniable high point is the finale, a beautifully staged ballet sequence reflecting the aftermath of Winnie’s decision not to drink the magical water. Charmingly illustrating the stages of a long life marked by love and loss, it achieves a level of subtle artistry that makes everything preceding it seem pedestrian by comparison.
Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York
Cast: Sarah Charles Lewis, Carolee Carmello, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Michael Park, Robert Lenzi, Michael Wartella, Valerie Wright, Pippa Peartree, Fred Applegate, Terrence Mann
Director-choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Book: Claudia Shear, Tim Federle, based on the novel by Natalie Babbitt
Music: Chris Miller
Lyrics: Nathan Tysen
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Music director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations: John Clancy
Presented by Grove Entertainment, Arlene Scanlan, Michael Jackowitz, Howard & Janet Kagan, Jeffrey A. Sine, Broadway Across America, Samira Nanda, Matthew Blank, Laurie Glodowski, Susan Daniels, Joan Jhett Productions, Gabrielle Hanna & Marcy Feller, Patti Maurer, Bev Tannenbaum, Sunshine Productions, Karen Humphries Sallick, Rich Entertainment Group, Jeremiah J. Harris, Darren P. Deverna, AC Orange International, Warner/Chappell Music, Linda G.Scott, Late Life Love Productions, Alexis Fund, Fakston Productions, Kyle Fisher, Jack Thomas, Cadeceus Productions, Barry Brown
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