Review: Poignancy is polished at musical 'Tuck Everlasting'
NEW YORK -- "Tuck Everlasting," the new musical that deals with eternal life, has wisely been put in the hands of someone whose work on Broadway never seems to die - director Casey Nicholaw.
Nicholaw has three hit shows running concurrently - "The Book of Mormon," ''Aladdin" and "Something Rotten!" - and his fourth is this adaptation of the 1975 young adult book by Natalie Babbitt. Like the others, it's in great hands.
The show that opened Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre is wonderfully crafted, a Nicholaw hallmark. Poignancy mixes well with humor, the songs are fresh and sweet, the set is blissful and the performances honest. It has a polished feel. All of the parts work smartly.
Babbitt's book is about a young girl in the 1880s who befriends a unique family that has gained immortality. Another musical, "Finding Neverland," tells the origin story of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up. This is the story of a family of four who are frozen in time.
The "Tuck Everlasting" adapters - Tony Award nominee Claudia Shear and author Tim Federle - have smartly made some changes that open the short novel up. They've killed off the girl's dad to let her experience loss, added a circus-like fair and created comedy by producing or enhancing minor characters.
The Tucks - parents Carolee Carmello and Michael Park and their sons, played by an exuberant Andrew Keenan-Bolger and a solid Robert Lenzi - have their secretive world turned upside down when Winnie Foster (11-year-old Sarah Charles Lewis, making an auspicious Broadway debut) discovers their secret.
A mysterious man in a yellow suit (the gloriously menacing Terrence Mann) threatens to expose everything, but a sweet, dim constable (Fred Applegate, a master of comic timing) is on his trail, with his deputy, a new character, a fine Michael Wartella. Nicholaw, who also did the choreography, adds the ensemble gentle dancing in the background to scenes.
An overly hectic first song laying out the narrative stumbles, but the show soon rights itself, continues strongly and ending with a blissful, wordless ballet that caused many sniffles at a recent preview. Humor wonderfully leavens the weighty issues. ("Nobody is shooting anybody," mom warns a gun-toting son at one point. "I just cleaned.")
The music by Chris Miller is magical, grounded in folk, foot-pounding earthy beats and soaring melodies. Everyone gets a song and some of the standouts are "Good Girl Winnie Foster," ''Everlasting" and "The Wheel."
Nathan Tysen's lyrics are even better - delving into complex themes with elegance. Here's a section of "The Wheel," sung by one of the eternals: "You can't have living without dying/So you can't call this living what we got/We just are, we just be/No before, no beyond/A rowboat anchored in the middle of a pond."
Walt Spangler's evocative sets are anchored by a massive tree, whose bark looks like huge wood shavings. (One of its branches reaches across the stage, sturdy enough to hold two performers.) Twinkling fireflies and a croaking rubber frog make the outdoors even more magical.
It's a quirky story, but the musical's cast and creative team have done it justice, particularly Nicholaw, who has masterfully shaped a lovely night of theater. Long may it live.
Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits