When the biggest laugh comes from calling a man in a yellow suit an evil banana, you are clearly targeting an audience of children. Although adapted from Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s novel Tuck Everlasting, this fantastical tale about a family who can live forever, does not deliver the necessary on-stage magic needed to make this family-friendly musical immortal. The show attempts to address questions of death, loss, and love in a way that children and adults can relate to. There’s a serious, thoughtful message here but it gets lost in a production that opts for a folksy and hammy tone instead. The musical never quite creates the enchantment needed to whisk the audience away.
In 1893, Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis) is an eleven year-old “good girl” who minds her mother even if she wishes she could break a few rules. She has been cooped up in her home for almost a year since her father died. Bored with black mourning clothes and desperate for adventure she sneaks off into the woods next to her house only to stumble upon Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), a mysterious 17-year-old boy. She uncovers the secret about his family—they drank from a local spring in the woods and it has turned them into immortals. Jesse’s mother, Mae (Carolee Carmello), and brother, Miles (Robert Lenzi), kidnap Winnie and bring her to the Tuck family’s cottage in the woods hoping the family patriarch Angus (Michael Park) will know what to do.
After spending so much of her time thinking about death, Winnie quickly becomes attached to this family who have endless days of life. Jesse, who may be 17 on the outside (and 102 on the inside), takes a shine to her. The two of them sneak out and get into mischief at the town carnival where they meet a creepy carnival barker, the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann). This encounter puts the Tuck family at risk.
Book writers Claudia Shear and Tim Federle condense a great deal of plot into the show, trying to capture the many lifetimes of the characters. Unfortunately, the songs, with music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, seem to only add more plot rather than any emotional nuance to the characters. Even the “I Want” songs that each Tuck family member sings restates much of what we already know about them. The result is a lot of exposition and little to root for.
The musical awkwardly stumbles around Jesse and Winnie’s relationship. Jesse is played as childish and as “aw shucks” as Keenan-Bolger can muster. But he then starts singing about how in six years Winnie might drink from the well and then they can get married. It’s really hard not to focus on her age then—especially when he points out the difference between age 11 and 17 “matters.” Yeah, we know it does, Jesse, and your highlighting that only adds to the “ick” factor (casting a 30-year-old actor as Jesse against an 11-year old-actor as Winnie exacerbates this problem). Besides Jesse’s song, it’s all pats on the back and kid-friendly chumming around, so then why is marriage and six more years of maturing even mentioned?
Winnie’s strongest connection to the Tucks’ immortality has to do with her grief over losing her father. The musical is far more successful in showing how the Tucks are the surrogate family Winnie longs for under these circumstances. Michael Park (perfectly rakish and puckish at the same time) and Carolee Carmello (costumed as if someone hates her and yet still full of stage joy) exude warmth and support as Angus and Mae Tuck and you understand how Winnie quickly embraces them. But then in the most emotional song, where Angus tries to explain to Winnie the consequences of living forever, director Casey Nicholaw has the two of them endlessly loop around the stage in a moving boat. The needless circling with a song already called “The Wheel” feels like a metaphor stuffed into a symbol shoved into a turducken. It comes across like Nicholaw does not trust the material to speak for itself, and the silliness of the direction distracts from what could otherwise be a beautiful moment.
Although the narrative suggests this is a quiet story about a young girl coming to terms with death, the production resists this sentimental clarity. Overall the serious subject matter feels boiled down to a brightly-colored fairy tale (leaping frog and all). Everything from the costuming to the set to the choreography to the direction plays loud, harsh, and cartoonish doing a disservice to the sincere characters and fine work of the actors. Loudest is the garish red wig (with a bump-it) that Sarah Charles Lewis wears. It makes her look like a bouffant-coiffed drag king styled by Tim Burton. It’s not doing the narrative or the character any favors.
Nicholaw leans heavily on dance throughout the show but often without dramaturgical support. Dancers emerge from the woods and disappear just as quickly, suggesting maybe they are magical fairies — but then why are they dressed formally in early nineteenth-century dresses and suits? None of it is fantastical enough to clarify what the dancers are doing there.
Nicholaw leaves much of the coda to the story to an extended wordless ballet. It is a jarring stylistic change and feels like someone has suddenly replaced one show with another. Although for once things are quiet and in this sequence you can imagine what the rest of the story might have felt like with a more ginger touch.
There are wonderful female heroes in children’s literature and the reasons we gravitate towards them as children (and adults) is because they often reflect traits we aspire to or share their unique perspective on the trials of life. In this staging, Winnie seemingly gets lost in her own story and her voice feels reflected the least. That feels like a true loss.