There’s nothing quite like being surprised at the theater, and I most assuredly was when I saw Tuck Everlasting, the new musical adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s popular children’s book about a family that, after drinking water from a stream, never ages and never dies.
Adapted by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, with a score by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), it’s clear from the opening number, which introduces the characters and their varied hopes and dreams, Tuck Everlasting is a whole-heartedly old-fashioned musical. But it’s not formulaic or tired in any way. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, its varied and delightful score follows the winsome Winnie Foster (brought to delightfully textured life by the winning Sarah Charles Lewis). Lonely and restless with her quiet life inside following her father’s death, Winnie longs to break from her identity as a good girl and raise “a little something more than heaven.”
Running away from her house, Winnie encounters Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) in the woods and the two quickly become friends. His family — Mae (Carolee Carmello) and Angus (Michael Park) and his brother Miles (Robert Lenzi) — who have lived in secret for more than 100 years for fear people will discover their secret, are less than thrilled at first, but Winnie quickly is embraced by them. Happy to have found a friend, Tuck invites Winnie to wait six years and then drink the water as well, so the two can explore the world together.
But all is not magic and fairytales; a menacing man (played by Terrance Mann, clearly having a fine time), longs to find the magical water and sell to make his fortune (has there ever been another motivation in fairy tales?) and the Tucks are desperate to avoid him. Throw in the well-meaning but rather slow-moving Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his eager and smarter assistant, Hugo (an endearing Michael Wartella) and you’ve got yourself a story.
Shear and Federle’s book moves along briskly, leaving plenty of time for those big musical numbers Nicholaw is known for — this time set to folksy, almost Celtic-sounding music, and a chorus decked out in appropriately flowing skirts, staged on Walt Spangler’s set designs that evoke children’s coloring books or arts and crafts. The mystical score underscores Winnie’s dilemma as she debates accepting Jesse’s offer or living her life as a normal person. And while the message of Living Life to Its Fullest feels a bit heavy-handed at times, the heartfelt performances of the cast elevate the work to another level.
Remember Sarah Lewis’ name; her talent at portraying this precious, hopeful but also wistful and sad girl is almost — dare I say it? — magical. She and the youthful Keenan-Bolger share a sweet chemistry as they sing and dance happily about being each other’s partners in crime. As Miles, Lenzi honestly depicts his character’s loss and anger at being forced to live forever while Park and Carmello are both outstanding as the parents struggling to maintain a marriage and a family under most unusual circumstances.
In fact, Lewis’ performance is so outstanding, it is almost a detriment to the story. Winnie’s spirit and curiosity, as well as her sheer emotional intelligence, made me hope she would find a life less ordinary and get to raise “a little something more than heaven.” But the rest of her life, which was described in the otherwise lovely song “The Wheel,” follows the path of “girl to wive to mother to daughter.” Her adulthood is beautifully depicted in a wordless dance sequence that shows her growing up to be a wife, mother and grandmother, follows a traditional path. Winnie had been tempted to join Tuck by the idea of traveling together and seeing the world — especially the Eiffel Tower — and, according to this ballet, she never did that. A life filled with love, a happy marriage and loving children are all wonderful experiences, but they’re not for everyone, and, watching Lewis’ remarkable portrayal of Winnie, I wondered if she hadn’t been entitled to something a bit more.