Move over, Matilda and Annie, there’s a new gal in town. A fountain-of-youth fable based on the ’70s children’s classic, “Tuck Everlasting” centers on adventuresome 11-year-old Winnie Foster (Sarah Charles Lewis), who comes across a family in the woods that have stayed the same age since they drank from a magical spring nearly a century ago. Tapping into live-forever fantasies of theater’s two core audiences (young people and baby boomers), this handsomely produced tuner, premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, shows commercial potential; it’s rich in warmth and spunk, but needs a dash more vinegar to cut through the waters of sentimentality if it wants that evergreen life, too.
Despite its existentialism-lite sweep, this is an intimate family story of love, loss and the purpose and power of storytelling in the American folk tradition of Twain and Wilder, with music and dance elements that deepen the story’s themes and emotions while also helping to deflect some of the narrative’s more head-scratching details. Smartly, the book by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) steers clear of the treacly teen romance of the 2002 Disney film adaptation and smartly returns the story’s heroine to childhood.
The tuner also differs from Natalie Babbitt’s novel and the film by making Winnie’s mother, Betsy (Liza Jaine), an over-protective widow who cautions “The world is a dangerous place” to her free-spirited daughter; also new is a traveling fair that opens the action up a bit, along with the ensemble’s wistful “I wish” opener, “Live Like This.” Most importantly, the script finds a simpler resolution at story’s climactic crisis.
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Helmer and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, noted for his bold, sassy hand in “The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” here explores a more delicate and lyrical approach, even creating a moving ballet sequence that reps one of the evening’s highlights. The show’s warm tones are deepened, too, by Walt Spangler’s set, grounded by his swirling forestry and Kenneth Posner’s golden-glow lighting.
Well-crafted tunes by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen (“The Burnt Part Boys”) set their musical motif in folk-roots-meets-Broadway territory. A pair of touching ballads — “My Most Beautiful Day” and “For the Best” — are rendered by Tuck matriarch Mae, played by Carolee Carmello, who ankles the cast this week to begin rehearsals for another flight into fantasy, “Finding Neverland.” Beth Leavel succeeds her.
Crowdpleasing elements include terrific vaudevillian turns by Terrence Mann as the delectably villainous Man in the Yellow Suit (“Everything’s Golden”) and Fred Applegate and the limber charmer Michael Wartella — a breakout spot here — as the deadpan constable and his eager deputy (“You Can’t Trust a Man”). As Winnie’s sharp-tongued Nana, Shannon Eubanks steals a scene or two while also landing the show’s biggest laugh.
The Tuck clan includes Michael Park as the patriarch who delivers the show’s philosophical summation (“You can’t have living without dying”) in “The Wheel,” and older brother Miles (Robert Lenzi), who tells his story of loss in “Time”; both songs are beautifully sung. But the two characters are sketchily written: Dad as a perennial lug until Winnie brightens things, and big bro as a toughie who turns too quickly to softie.
But the show’s heart lies in the relationship between Winnie and the eternally 17-year-old (but really 104) Jesse Tuck, played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who skillfully balances the joy of youth with the underlying loneliness of his journey. As Winnie, Lewis is a real find: self-possessed and engaging, with the presence to not only hold a stage but also carry a show.
Still, her character needs a bit less pluck and a little more conflict about the family she may be leaving behind in exchange for a sip of Foreverland. There also isn’t a fulfilling resolution for Winnie and Jesse at story’s end that satisfies. If some of these details can be worked out, the show just may have a shot at living on, too.