Hope springs eternal at the Broadhurst Theatre, where Tuck Everlasting is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to capitalize on the cult-like popularity of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s novel of the same name. With a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, the new musical follows the tale of young Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis) as she stumbles across Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) in the woods near her home. Winnie’s household is a sullen one after the recent death of her father and she’s run away, having had a tiff with her mother (Valerie Wright).
But Jesse is no ordinary 17-year-old. He and his family have drunk from a secret spring that has made them eternal. Out of fear of being discovered, it’s been a decade since Jesse and his brother Miles (Robert Lenzi) have been reunited with their parents Mae (Carolee Carmello) and Angus (Michael Park). Jesse befriends Winnie and introduces her to the family, who worry that she may reveal their secret and thereby disrupt the natural course of life and essentially send humanity into a tailspin. Enter the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrance Mann), who has just that intention. He’s been hunting the Tuck family for years and discovers Jesse and Winnie after they’ve sneaked out to go to the local fair. Meanwhile, Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his sidekick Hugo (Michael Wartella) are on the hunt to find the young girl.
Babbitt’s source material is considered by many to be one of the most significant children’s books of the 20th century and it’s a lot to live up to. Ms. Lewis, in her Broadway debut, carries much of the show in a charming, precocious manner. Mr. Keenan-Bolger, of slight stature but big intention, is equally engaging, as is the ever-reliable Ms. Carmello.
Unfortunately, the physical production, designed by Walt Spangler, practically swallows the cast, including a massive tree built out of what looks like wood shavings. Imposing set pieces assault the audience from nearly every direction. Hand-painted costumes and an overly saturated lighting palette also ensure theatergoers that they’re getting their money’s worth.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Something Rotten!, The Book of Mormon) deftly handles the script, though it’s a sanitized version of Babbitt’s original story. He seems to have lost his way with uninspired choreography with the exception of the final ballet sequence, which delivers a standalone morality tale about the value of experiencing all of the joys, trials, and tribulations through one’s life. Insiders say Nicholaw felt it necessary to amp up the choreography throughout the show to justify the musical’s final sequence, but his unnecessary and anachronistic use of gymnastics in Act I’s fair is another example of over-the-top antics that mask the story.
Much like the current revival of The Color Purple, I have a feeling that in a decade or so, we may see a very different reimagining of Tuck Everlasting—one that is older and perhaps a bit wiser.
Here’s what other critics are saying:
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 New York Times
The show faithfully illustrates the story’s fairy-tale vibe, with suitably ornery production values — the tree Winnie and her new friend Jesse Tuck climb is especially lovely. And the actors are largely engaging, especially seasoned pros like Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann and Fred Applegate. As Winnie, Sarah Charles Lewis is 11 going on Laura Benanti — the downside is that she projects such unflagging confidence that you never doubt that Winnie will be all right no matter what she decides. So much for pathos. You need a cast of aces to even try to bring to life Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen’s score — a procession of dull, Renaissance Faire songs that float by, making barely a ripple. New York Post
Immortality is overrated. Ask the hapless family at the center of the sweetly wholesome but hyperactive new Broadway musical Tuck Everlasting. New York Daily News
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Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.