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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
The Tucks — parents and two sons — are characters in Natalie Babbitt's young-adult novel Tuck Everlasting, a perennial on middle-school reading lists since its publication in 1975. Now Tuck Everlasting is a Broadway musical, with book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen.
Babbitt's bittersweet novel is noteworthy for tackling the grown-up theme of mortality in a way that's age-appropriate for pre-teens. The authors of the musical have retold the story in the heartfelt style of musical theater's golden age. The result is endearing family entertainment.
Broadway veterans Carolee Carmello and Michael Park are the elder Tucks who, with their sons Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and Miles (Robert Lenzi), have been rendered immune to aging, injury, illness, and death by drinking enchanted water from a hidden spring near the New Hampshire village of Treetop. Constantly on guard against revealing their difference to ordinary mortals, they've become outcasts, moving constantly to elude detection, never forming bonds in the communities through which they pass.
The plot takes off when the Tucks revisit the spring decades after being transformed by its water and encounter eleven-year-old Winnie (Sarah Charles Lewis) whose family owns the property.
Winnie endears herself to the family and develops a colossal crush on Jesse. But the Tucks are in a quandary as to how to deal with her when she discerns their secret. And Winnie, who doesn't grasp initially how unhappy the Tucks are living outside nature's order, must decide whether to join the Tucks by drinking from the spring or remain as she is.
Tuck Everlasting is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the master-craftsman whose current Broadway credits include The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, and Something Rotten. This new show is gentler, less tongue-in-cheek, than those other Nicholaw projects; but that's not to say it lacks humor or high spirits.
Treetop, as brought to life by designers Walt Spangler (sets), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Gregg Barnes (costumes) is a small-town universe reminiscent of The Music Man. The authors and designers have enhanced the proceedings with an itinerant fair (not in Babbitt's novel) that brings to mind Carousel and Carnival.
The musical keeps faith with Babbitt's low-key treatment of the magical elements in her plot. Instead of conjuring special effects, the designers rely on a sort of Brigadoon-ish charm to convey the presence of supernatural forces. And Nicholaw has created a final dance sequence about growing up and growing old that evokes the tone and temper of Agnes de Mille's second-act ballet in Carousel, as well as the rational earthiness that Rodgers and Hammerstein introduced to musical theater.
Shear and Federle have preserved what's most poignant in Babbitt's novel, avoiding (at least for the most part) anything maudlin. Tysen's lyrics are admirably crafted; Miller's melodies have a post-war Broadway sound with occasional Sondheim-ish inflections (a combination that's engaging). But it's the cast and second-act choreography that make Tuck Everlasting worth a visit.
Keenan-Bolger and Lenzi are well cast as the Tuck boys. The parents, Carmello and Park, perform the score with vocal distinction but they lack chemistry.
Lewis, a newcomer, is an eleven-year-old with a powerhouse voice and stage presence reminiscent of Andrea McArdle in Annie. Terrence Mann, as the Man in the Yellow Suit, is a broadly comic villain, but his connection to the Tucks' drama is not as quickly or clearly explicated as it should be.
The authors have added a subplot involving the relationship of the local constable (Fred Applegate) and his fledgling deputy (Michael Wartella). The deputy is not part of the novel; and the subplot, which seems borrowed from the Dogberry scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, is superfluous.
Despite its flaws, Tuck Everlasting has a strong, touching second act; and Nicholaw brings the story home in his life-affirming ballet. With its de Mille flavor and wheel-of-life message (thematically akin to the powerful opening of The Lion King), this sequence depicts the joys and sorrows in store for Winnie if she chooses not to drink from the spring.
Babbitt uses the Tucks, miserably alienated by their immortal state, to put death in perspective for young readers. As Nicholaw's ensemble dances through the seasons of Winnie's on-going mortality, Babbitt's principal theme finally comes into focus on stage. As Father Tuck says in the novel: "Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That's the way [life's] supposed to be.