Tuck Everlasting review

Tuck Everlasting Review - Broadway musical

Family-friendly musicals on Broadway generally come in just one flavor: flashy.

Enter “Tuck Everlasting,” a warm-spirited and piercingly touching musical that has nothing flashy or splashy about it. The nearest this small-scale production comes to the kind of spectacle we associate with kiddie bait is a toad hopping across the stage.

Based on the popular children’s book by Natalie Babbitt, the musical, which opened on Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theater, has been deftly adapted by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) and Tim Federle and features a winning, varied score by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics).

A little surprisingly, the show is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who specializes in the kind of musicals “Tuck Everlasting” very much is not: the razzle-dazzly “Aladdin”; the exuberantly vulgar “The Book of Mormon”; and last season’s anything-for-a-laugh Elizabethan spoof, “Something Rotten!” (Remarkably, he now has four musicals running on Broadway.)

Mr. Nicholaw does let loose in a couple of rousing numbers led by the show’s mysterious villain, a carnival worker, with high-kicking dancers swirling and strutting across the stage; you can almost feel his delight in getting to flex the muscles he’s most often used. But he also evinces a natural feel for the tender emotional core of the material and even its layers of mildly dark philosophical inquiry.

Yes, I did just use the phrase “philosophical inquiry” in reference to a Broadway musical aimed at the family crowd. “Tuck Everlasting” rings a variation on the fountain of youth myth, ultimately asking what life would mean if it never ended, and whether a never-ending life would be worth living.

It also provides an answer in the enthralling, wordless climax, a ballet that depicts, with moving clarity, what another, much-celebrated musical would call the circle of life. (The musical “Tuck Everlasting,” incidentally, hews more closely to the book than the 2002 Disney movie, and Disney is not involved in the production.)

In a cluttered opening number, which bears paying close attention to, we meet the Tuck family — Mae (Carolee Carmello) and Angus (Michael Park) and their sons, 17-year-old Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and the older Miles (Robert Lenzi) — in the early 19th century, and watch as they drink from a spring at the base of a tree. (This tree, which stretches across the proscenium and is composed of Frank Gehryesque curving slivers of wood, is the most striking aspect of Walt Spangler’s handsome set designs.)

In the same sequence, we jump forward to 1893, where we meet Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis), an 11-year-old whose mother (Valerie Wright) keeps her on a suffocating leash. Poor Winnie longs to go to the fair that’s come to town — or just about anywhere — but is kept at home by her widowed mother, who believes that it would be improper to be seen having fun less than a year after the death of Winnie’s father.

Expressing her frustration, Winnie, who is played by Ms. Lewis with winning spunk that (miraculously) never cloys, sings of her fervent wish to “raise a little something more than heaven.”

The rebel spirit within eventually wins out over the obedient girl. In a fit of frustration, Winnie skips into the woods behind her house, chasing that toad. There she meets Jesse, drinking from the spring. But when Winnie tries to do the same, he stops her in confusion and distracts her by inviting her to climb the tree.

When they jump down, it’s to find Mae and Miles sitting at its base, aghast when they discover that Jesse has a young friend in tow. For, as Winnie soon learns, the family has a secret that they have strenuously hidden. The water in the spring is a magic elixir. Since the day they drank from it, none of them have aged. Jesse is 17, but he was born 102 years ago.

“It must be so fun to be you!” Winnie exclaims, but while she delights in spending time with the Tucks, she will come to see that infinite life does not necessarily mean infinite happiness.

The rather complicated story is cleanly shaped in Ms. Shear and Mr. Federle’s book, which contrasts the sometimes somber story of the Tucks with the comic bumbling of the detectives — Fred Applegate’s Constable Joe and his eager and smarter assistant, Hugo (an endearing Michael Wartella) — who are called in to look for Winnie when she doesn’t come home after running into the woods.

Also enlivening the proceedings is the presence of that villain, called only the Man in the Yellow Suit, who’s on the trail of the Tucks and their secret of immortality and who is played with gleeful, grasping menace by Terrence Mann.

In one of the frisky bits of comedy, Winnie’s grandmother, played with acerbic wit by Pippa Pearthree, glowers at him and says, “You’re an evil banana.”

The actors throughout are excellent. Ms. Carmello sings with her usual pure, clarion tone, and has a nice maternal rapport with Ms. Lewis. She and Mr. Park also movingly indicate their love for their sons and the pain of the strange predicament that forces them to separate from the boys for long periods. And Mr. Keenan-Bolger gives a terrific, ebullient performance as Jesse, whose delight in finding a friend he can confide in carries him away.

“Tuck Everlasting” can sometimes be a little ham-handed in addressing its central theme, the notion that life’s beauty is inseparable from its inevitable end.

Taking Winnie out for a fishing trip, Angus tells her: “Don’t be afraid of death, Winnie. Be afraid of not being truly alive. You don’t need to live forever, you just need to live.” This, just after singing a song with the lyric “You can’t have living without dying.” Noted, and noted.

When in the production’s thrilling final moments, Mr. Nicholaw’s choreography, and Mr. Miller’s rapturous music, take over, the cast and dancers express the same ideas with a kinetic beauty that startles with its emotional resonance and theatrical force. Among the many refreshing surprises of “Tuck Everlasting” is this reminder that a musical doesn’t necessarily have to sing or speak its truths to bring them home to us.
Last Update:October, 23rd 2023

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