Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of A Christmas Carol
All this is once again true for the visually stunning, musically uplifting, and thematically intriguing and inspiring Tuck Everlasting, now being staged by TheatreWorks and directed by Robert Kelley as a true holiday gift to the Silicon Valley community. Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics) planted the seeds for the eventual 2016 Broadway offering by writing its first two songs at a TheatreWorks writers' workshop in 2010. They were big fans of Natalie Babbitt's 1975 novel, already considered a children's classic, which explores the question of "If you could live forever, would you?" Bringing first Claudia Shear and then Tim Federle to complete the book of their musical, the entire team birthed a musical in which magic can be found in a forest spring and a country fair, family unity and unlikely friendships equal eternal love, and the concept of eternity is discovered to be more than just living forever.
Amidst a stage-full of trees whose wandering limbs and dripping vines reach out into the audience below, a little girl of eleven sings, "Today is the day I've been waiting forever," soon to be joined in blending harmonies by others she will meet who, too, have special wishes for this day in 1893 Treegap, New Hampshirea day each wishes "could live like this forever."
For Winnie, it's the desire to go to the fair, and she has already dressed in her bright green dress to head out. But her mother insists she put back on one of black, as they are still in the first year of mourning for Winnie's deceased dad. But Winnie is not about to give in and decides it is time to "go find trouble," as Natalie Schroeder (alternating the role with Katie Maupin) sings in a voice full of a kid's mischief and determination but with the power of someone twice her age, "I've got a really bad case of being good."
Off she goes to run away from home to the forbidden fair, meeting a parade in the forest led by a marching band, a miniature clown, dancing women dressed like fairies, and a strange juggling man in a bright yellow suit hawking in a gravelly voice "Join the Parade," "a tonic for the woebegone." On her way through the woods to get to the fair, Winnie meets Jesse (Eddie Grey), a boy of seventeen drinking from a spring under a massive tree. Thirsty, she wants a sip, but he quickly forbids it, instead diverting her attention to the "Top of the World." As the two climb the spring's tree, Jesse sings with excited wonder and promise of "a story yet untold, it's up here." The two then join to form a fast and lasting friendship as they sing in triumphant duet, "I'm alive and I am free, so look at me at the top of the world."
That friendship is immediately challenged as the rest of Jesse's family, the Tucks, discover that someone other than the four of them now knows about this secret spring from which they happened to drink many decades ago, never to age another day since. Not knowing what to do next, they kidnap Winnie to their treehouse-like abode deep in the woods. There, Jesse, his mother Mae (Kristine Reese), and brother Miles (Travis Leland) all sing at once in bits and pieces a fabulously intricate "The Story of the Tucks," all the time not scaring but totally fascinating the wide-eyed Winnie as she hears about a family "not aging," "not growing." That night in an attic with a trunkful of clothes from the past hundred years, Mae vividly remembers with Winnie in "My Most Beautiful Day" meeting her husband Angus in a century past, establishing in Winnie a seed that growing old would actually be a wonderful thing, since "looking back is something to look forward to, your most beautiful day for the rest of your life."
In this and many other songs, the lyrics of Nathan Tysen soar in their ability to weave beautifully the story's themes, emotions, and lessons, especially when coupled with the music of Chris Miller that resonates deeply in its ability to emote feeling and to leave a memory to be re-hummed with a smile the next day. That is especially true when sung by someone like Kristine Reese as Mae Tuck, who radiates in both voice and countenance as she lovingly sings to this little girl who has tripped accidentally into the lives of the Tucks.
But, as one might imagine, back at Winnie's home, her mother Betsy (Teressa Foss) and her Nana (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) are now worried sick and have sought help to find the runaway Winnie from a pair of lovable but hilariously bumbling local law officers, Constable Joe (Colin Thomson) and his deputy-in-waiting (and son) Hugo (David Crane). Hugo sings in short, silly spurts of excited anticipation about "Hugo's First Case." Later, in the midst of their sleuthing, the two sing in corny rhymes that delight the crowd, "You Can't Trust a Man" as they are on the search for "a man who is fondest of suits that are jaundiced."
That Man in the Yellow Suit whom Winnie saw in the initial fair parade through the forest is the culprit who has concocted a sinister plan to take control of the eternal spring in the woods in order to make a fortune selling sips to anyone wanting to live forever. Michael Gene Sullivan is a riot as the loud-dressing, loud-mouthed villain who is impossible not to like just a little (actually, a lot) even though he is thoroughly evil in his avarice. Sullivan sings with ego-filled gusto and dances with a set of twinkle toes that surprise in their dainty moves (part of Alex Perez's tongue-in-cheek, often vaudeville-inspired choreography). We may despise his intentions and tactics, but how can we not revel in his scheming songs about golden days of eternal wealth?
Director Robert Kelley reminds us throughout the evening that it is the presence of varied generations both present and past that make our lives rich. Often, people stand guard during a sung number with their backs turned but with their presence felt among the tall trees where they stand. In what is the core scene of the entire musical, various aged people surround a rowboat carrying Winnie and Angus Tuck (the father), using ropes to gently rock the boat in the unseen water. Jonathan Rhys Williams sings in a gorgeously soothing, comforting voice about "The Wheel," gently but persuasively making the case to young Winnie that life is "a wheel ... a circle in motion, can't stop rowing, growing, changing and moving on." That eternal life he has accidentally found and is attracting Winnie is like, he suggests subtly, "once you drop an anchor, the boat gets stuck and it could stay forever ... stuck." If there is a moment sure to draw a tear and to be recalled for both its beauty and its depth of meaning, it is Angus and Winnie in this boat with the eyes of both the living and the dead watching them.
To help this director and cast convey such a powerfully moving story comes a creative team that has outdone itself to create a world magically alive and enticing. Scenic designer Joe Ragey has created a magnificently forested world where architectural frameworks of roofs, attics full of hidden treasures, and hints of homes both woodsy and New England proper all appear and disappear seamlessly. Pamila Z. Gray's lighting includes touches like twinkling fireflies, deeply rich skies of purple and orange, and a forest's canopy of shadows mysterious and inviting. Jeff Mockus's sound design has ensured not one word of spoken dialogue or sung lyrics has been missed or delivered out of balance with the poetically melodious orchestra directed by William Liberatore (and playing orchestrations by John Clancy). Finally, from marching bands to carnival folk to funny sleuths and yellow-suited bad gay, Fumiko Bielefeldt has once again costumed a Bay Area stage with incredible color and creativity.
The only moment Tuck Everlasting is less than compelling is during a pantomimed sequence touted as a ballet but performed more like a revolving series of silent scenes to let us know what happens to each of the people in the passing decades after this particular story ends. While the outcome leads to an answer to Winnie's probing, piercingly beautiful questions in her concluding "Everlasting" ("Does the story end or never end? Does the secret fade or is it everlasting?"), the scenes are a bit too much like the now popular tactic of many movies that end with headshots of "here's what happened next" to each person.
But overall, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Tuck Everlasting is an area premiere that is about as perfect a gift as any audience could ever hope to receive under its theatre-attending tree. And who does not want to be caught in a December snowstorm in otherwise snowless Palo Alto?
Tuck Everlasting, through December 30, 2018, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org.