SANDY — Tuck Everlasting is the tale of a girl who discovers a spring of eternal youth in the woods behind her house. Based on the 1975 novel by Natalie Babbitt, it effectively re-introduces the ideas behind legends like the Fountain of Youth and Rip van Winkle to a new generation. The 2016 Broadway adaptation (written by Claudia Shear and Tom Federle) is a worthy addition to the modern musical pantheon. And the Hale Centre Theatre‘s current staging of the show is an absolute winner.
Aimee Johnson gave a charming performance as the 11-year old protagonist Winnie Foster. She was likable and spunky as she balanced the difficult duality of pre-adolescent daring and naivety. Plus, dang can she sing. Her introduction song “Good Girl, Winnie Foster” was a highlight of the night. As if there was any doubt that she would be the complete package, the epilogue showed that she can dance, too.
The rest of the main characters are the Tucks, a vaguely elfish family of forest hermits who are blessed—and cursed—with endless youth. Mom and Pop, whose names are Mae and Angus (Michelle Blake and Brian Neal Clark), hold things down as the head of home, while wandering wayward sons Jesse and Miles (Kooper Campbell and Marshall R. Madsen) bring up the rear. Despite the short nature of the story, all of the Tucks have their own character arc and are jolted out of their various states of complacency by Winnie’s arrival.
Jesse is the main attraction in the family: a quasi-love interest who shows Winnie the exciting benefits of maturity and everlasting life. Like Johnson and the rest of the cast, Campbell packs a powerful voice. His voice has a very smooth quality which would be at home in a lot of starring young men roles. Madsen as Miles Tuck delivered the powerhouse song of the show with “Time”, his retelling of his tragic cursed life. It was a moving song that got me a bit misty-eyed.
I think the chemistry between Johnson and Campbell could improve a bit: I would like to see the two actors really behold each other, instead of just react to each other. But this observation is a quibble, a nothing, compared to the smorgasbord of delights the two actors unfolded on stage. Their duet “Partner in Crime” was an outright smash: great singing, dancing, and acting… the three main things that audiences want and expect in a musical.
A talented and lively group of dancers (with choreography by director Dave Tinney) joined the dance numbers, and also provided living scenery in several scenes (much like in the musical Bright Star). The show’s music (by Chris Miller) is delightful and enjoyable. It’s tuneful, but also challenging enough to be interesting. While it is unlikely the audience will be singing in the parking lot (there is no “Defying Gravity” or “Memory”), Tuck Everlasting offers a consistent array of high quality tunes.
In scenery, music, and crowd appeal, Tuck Everlasting feels very much like a modern Broadway musical. Some of the melodies are very Wicked and Into the Woods-y. But the show is especially similar to Bright Star, another backwoods story with an onstage band that was obliterated out of existence in New York by the Hamilton supernova.
Like a lot of modern family fare on stage and film, you can almost feel that the show has been workshopped and focus-grouped extensively by a risk-averse group of well-heeled overlords (who wouldn’t be cautious fronting millions to put something on Broadway?)—but it works. As crowd-pleasing entertainment, Tuck Everlasting just plain sings on every note. Is it funny? Is it heartwarming? Is it technically impressive? Yes, all to an outstanding measure.
The only thing that bugged me about the book and lyrics was how neatly everyone announced their motivations on arrival. The establishment of the time and place was also so on-the-nose that it distracted from the illusion. I wish the playwrights would give the audience a little credit and let these details come more naturally in the story.
The technical aspects of this production were outstanding. The set design by Kacey Udy was enchanting, evoking the wild, magical woods of Treegap filled with flowers, greenery, and mystery. The cabin and attic sets were especially breathtaking. I loved how the attic set incorporated props (by Michelle Jensen) throughout the entire piece, even beneath the floorboards.
Scene changes were so fast and seamless that I often marveled how we moved from scene to scene so effortlessly, and costumes by Joy Zhu were another strong, supporting element of the show. The Moulin-Rouge inspired fair was an art director’s dream, although I’m not sure that fair (complete with apparent women of ill repute) would really appeal to an 11-year old girl. As far as sound, this was the first time I’ve experienced audio problems at the new Hale, but they weren’t pervasive.
The script and lyrics (by Nathan Tysen) are laudable and razor sharp. The song “You Can’t Trust a Man”, sung by a pair of detectives (Justin Cabell and Benjamin Tate), about how you can’t trust a man with a wimpy handshake was a scream. However, a large number of jokes weren’t landing on opening night for some reason. To the actors’ credit, the audience was uniformly elderly without a youth in sight, but surely the actors have room to improve as the run progresses as well. Blake and Campbell may also consider portraying their characters slightly less exaggerated. The size of the theater and quality of the mics are such that it’s not necessary to “play to the back row.” Plus, doing so might lead to variety in delivery of the lines and depth in the characters.
But in all, this was a magical evening that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Broadway musicals. Not nearly enough people in the audience offered a standing ovation, so I’ll add my own second ovation: “Bravo, Tuck Everlasting cast! Bravo! May your soon-to-be-sold-out run be the first of many of this fabulous musical. And may the Hale produce more shows like this.”
If Tuck Everlasting was a movie, it would be rated PG for violence and language. There is a fair amount of peril and use of weapons, including a stabbing, shooting, a hostage situation, and (spoiler alert!) the onstage death of a bad guy.