"A Thirst for Life"
|Stars range from 5-1.|
Anyone who’s ever hoped they could live forever need only consider plays or films like Death Takes a Holiday, On Borrowed Time, or The Picture of Dorian Gray to realize the potentially tragic consequences of such wishful thinking. A similarly skeptical idea informs Broadway's newest family musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s fantasy novel about the effect on a family of drinking from what amounts to a fountain of youth. Big and colorful as the show is, it’ll need more than a slug of that magical elixir if it’s to find anything approaching immortality on the Great White Way.
|Carolee Carmello, Michael Park, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The material already has been made into two films, one in 1981, without any name actors, and the other (by Disney) in 2002, starring Sissy Spacek, William Hurt, and Ben Kingsley. The musical version was two years in the making when, during the 2014-2015 season, unable to find a Broadway venue, it premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. It had much the same cast and creative team as the present staging at the Broadhurst, where the program squeezes in so many producers you may need a magnifying glass to read the credits.
Claudia Shear (Dirty Blonde) and Tim Federle’s book simplifies yet remains faithful to the familiar plotline of Babbit’s novel. Toward its end, future events following the main action are capsulized in an extended “Everlasting” ballet, choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot, The Book of Mormon), in which the cycle of life and death is beautifully evoked. It's one of the relatively few takeaways from a show that, despite running about two and a quarter hours, sometimes feels as though it should be called Tuck Neverending.
|Terrence Mann and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The tale proper, set in 1893, follows a plucky 10-year-old named Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis), who lives with her widowed mother, Betsy (Valerie Wright), and Nana (Pippa Pearthree) in Treegap, New Hampshire. Winnie, a spunky kid who has a pet toad, feels constrained by her mother’s protectiveness so she runs off into the forest, where she meets a 17-year-old boy named Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger, convincingly belying his actual age of 30), drinking from a secret spring. Jesse takes the adventure-seeking Winnie off to meet his mother Mae (Carolee Carmello) and father Angus (Michael Park), and his 21-year-old brother, Miles (Robert Lenzi, who sings "Time," the show's most haunting number).
Winnie learns the Tuck family secret, that during the late 18th-century they discovered that the water they accidentally drank from the spring gave them eternal life and safety from any physical harm, even (as the show reveals) a rifle shot; eventually, to deter attention from their never growing older they split up, reuniting at Angus’s rustic cottage after years of separation. (I know fantasy plots arn't supposed to be taken literally, but I couldn't help wondering why, despite the family’s age [Jesse is 102], its members continue to relate to each other in the same way they as when they first drank the water; the teenage boy is still treated as the teenage boy, the parents still lead the family, and the brothers still maintain their boyhood tension.)
Only one other person is aware of the water’s existence, the wicked carny called the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann). His desire to find and buy the spring so he can become wealthy by selling its water leads to his tricking Winnie’s mother into selling him the land on which the spring is located. An investigation into Winnie’s disappearance is carried out by the comical, kindly Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his fumbling but smarter-than-he-seems deputy, Hugo (Michael Wartella). Winnie, given some of the water, never chooses to drink it, and the circle of life (summarized in Angus’s “The Wheel”) goes on, although there is that toad . . . Of course, all works out happily but the taste in some mouths may be bittersweet; the heroine, as we see in the final ballet, chooses a far more conventional path toward fulfillment than her childhood self may have implied.
Next door to the Broadhurst is the Shubert Theatre, home to the smash hit family musical, Matilda, about another precocious girl; I had reservations about Matilda but, in retrospect, its imaginative staging, offbeat humor, creative cleverness, and overall originality make apparent its neighbor’s relative lack of laughs, unexceptional, folk-inflected score (music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen), lack of dramatic tension, excessive sentimentality, and stretches of dullness.
Sarah Charles Lewis, the 11-year-old star, who was 10 when she created the role of Winnie in Atlanta, is a sweet and highly capable actress with a Broadway-quality voice, but there’s nothing especially unique in her performance; partly, this is because of the formulaic nature of her role and its lack of any unforgettably catchy songs (the way “Tomorrow” served Andrea McArdle in the original Annie).
The same could be said for the adult actors, who can all belt out those frequent big release notes (as in Mae’s “My Most Beautiful Day”) and, for all their considerable energy (and occasional overacting), aren’t able to make us love their two-dimensional characters. One of Broadway’s most familiar stars, Terrence Mann (Pippin, Cats, Les Misérables), plays the Man in the Yellow Suit in a jazzy, Fossean vaudevillian style (as per his bouncy number, “Everything’s Golden”) but his vocal and physical hamminess goes only so far. Only veteran Fred Applegate (The Last Ship) as the constable has the grounded honesty and humor so lacking in the forced emoting of most of his peers. His “You Can’t Trust a Man” routine with Wartella is a standout.
Visually, there’s nothing to carp about and lots to admire. From the moment you enter the theatre, set designer Walt Spangler’s enormous tree, with its bark and leaves like a sculpture of carved, curving peelings, its huge boughs able to rise and fall, captivates; the same is true of his other design elements, like the partial houses for the Foster and Tucker homes. Kenneth Posner covers the set with luscious lighting, and Gregg Barnes’s delightful period costumes are perfectly at home.
Several theatregoers could be spotted drying their eyes after the show ended, but only time will tell if Tuck Everlasting has more than a famous title and a tearjerking finale to make its stay on Broadway an everlasting one.
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