Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2016
Tuck Everlasting Book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle. Music by Chris Miller. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Based on the novel Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Orchestrations by John Clancy. Music Director Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Cast: Carolee Carmello, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Michael Park, Robert Lenzi, Michael Wartella, Valerie Wright, Pippa Pearthree, featuring Fred Applegate, and Terrence Mann, Timothy J. Alex, Chloë Campbell, Callie Carter, Ben Cook, Elizabeth Margaret Crawford, Deanna Doyle, Brandon Espinoza, Lisa Gajda, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Christopher Gurr, Neil Haskell, Matt Meigs, Heather Parcells, Justin Patterson, Marco Schittone, Brooklyn Shuck, Jennifer Smith, Kathy Voytko, Sharrod Williams, and introducing Sarah Charles Lewis.
Of course there's its story, which is drawn directly from Natalie Babbitt's 1975 children's novel about the members of the Tuck family who drink from an enchanted spring in a secluded forest and find that they can no longer die or be killed. Depending on which Tuck you ask, this is either a blessing or a curse that stands in the way of the loves and dreams that drive most of us. And when a young girl named Winnie Foster accidentally discovers the Tucks and their secret, she too must face their same dilemma: Are the upsides of eternal life enough to warrant what you must give up for it? It's a sobering, crystalline distillation of an experience we all have as we get older.
But whereas other musicals this season have tried to explain the past using the present tense (Hamilton) or discarded universality in favor of devotion to a locked-in genre (the recent American Psycho and Waitress), Tuck Everlasting takes the broader view: that the vernacular we have is good enough. Claudia Shear and Tim Federle have constructed a simple, no-nonsense libretto that hits the necessary narrative succinctly. Then, songwriters Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen pick up the thread with songs that may have a slightly pastoral Victorian echo, but betray no specific period; it's the plot they move and the people they explore that matter most. Finally, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw wraps it all up in a cozy package that combines low-key brashness with unpretentious sophistication andif you can believe ita sprawling, 10-minute second-act ballet that wraps up the evening as nothing else could.
This, then, is at once a musical at one with its subject matter: It learns from the past but refuses to live in it. The resulting show feels resolutely real, in a way no other new entry on Broadway this season has, despite its unavoidable fantasy overlay. That achievement is more impressive given the terrain it must cover. It travels across nearly nine decades of the Tucks's enchantment, while encompassing two family angst threads (the Fosters and the Tucks), a comedy-support subplot (Constable Joe and his goofy assistant Hugo, who are investigating Winnie's disappearance), a bad guy (the "Man in the Yellow Suit," a carny who knows more about the Tucks than he wants to let on), and two Winnie-centric romances (one with Jesse, the younger of the two Tuck brothers, and one that should probably not be divulged here).
Hers is a journey paved with magic and thus music, which Miller and Tysen (The Burnt Part Boys Off-Broadway) readily provide. There's "Good Girl Winnie Foster," Winnie's spunky "I want"or rather "I don't want"number ("I'd fly the coop if only I could / But I've got a really bad case of being good"); the zippy "Join the Parade," for the carnival-focused scenes; Miles's bitter "Time," about everything he's had to give up (and which Lenzi infuses with palpable anguished regret); several excited, encouraging songs for Jesse in which he explains his worldview ("Top of the World"), and carefully nudges his relationship with Winnie through friendship ("Partner in Crime") and hopefully something more ("Seventeen"); "Wheel," Angus's plaintive theme statement about the cycle of life; Winnie's decision-making "Everlasting"; and even a true comic showstopper for Hugo (Michael Wartella) and Joe (Fred Applegate) in "You Can't Trust a Man," as they pursue their investigation.
Because Tuck Everlasting is the work of committed theatre pros and not outside interlopers who don't understand scope and structure, these soar and shuffle and expand and attract as required; there is no moment where the writers' voices rise above those of their characters. They're invisible, but their craft is everywhere in this expertly blended show. Just as integral are the woodcut-storybook set (by Walt Spangler), whimsical costumes (Gregg Barnes) and lights (Kenneth Posner), and of course Nicholaw's front-to-back staging, which has the urgency and immediacy of dancing even when everyone onstage is standing still. John Clancy's playful orchestrations for the 11 musicians and Mary-Mitchell Campbell's light-handed conducting, too, are perfectly in keeping with their surroundings.
But Keenan-Bolger, not an actor I've much warmed to in the past, is stunningly good, delivering a richly textured performance that layers the mischievousness of a boy with the primal urgings of a man, but without allowing their partnership to become disturbing. And as Winnie, the 11-year-old Lewis is remarkable. In addition to being the uncommon child performer whose acting is utterly unaffected, displaying no annoying hint of stage-dust-caked artifice, she also fields a firm, beautifully trained singing voice and a seasoned dancer's physical grace and precision. Although this may be Lewis's first Broadway appearance, let's all hope it's not her last.
For all that Tuck Everlasting gets right, however, it could do with more confidence and polish. There are too many flashback scenes (three) to keep us rooted where the tale is most important. Nicholaw's dancing corps, though excellent, too often is shoehorned into the action. The identity of The Man in the Yellow Suit is poorly defined (his role makes is clearer in the novel), which forces Terrence Mann, who plays him, to make him too much a mustache-twirling villain. And as good as the songs are as theatre music, there's an "errant NYMF" quality about them that often seems to be more about avoiding anticipated melodic resolutions and eschewing traditional buttons because, well, musicals of today just don't bother with such things.
Such miscalculations, which stray from the tried and true precepts the creative team otherwise embraces, prevent the show from being a slam-dunk hit. But as it is, it knows what it wants to be and what it wants to do, and it accomplishes its goals with aplomb. Lovely, honest, and ultimately moving, in the ways that matter most, it's what a musical should be. I can't speak to its central argument about whether living forever would be a good thing, but I do know that, while losing myself in its powerful final 15 minutes, I never wanted Tuck Everlasting to end.