With “Matilda” exiting Broadway in January, there’s a new singing pre-teen hoping to generate the same family-audience appeal. But whether Winnie Foster, the main character in the new musical adaptation of “Tuck Everlasting,” can connect with all-ages theatergoers will depend on their inclination for sentiment, moralistic storytelling and a show that’s nothing if not sincere. Those who lean that way will be attracted to the tuneful folk-meets-Broadway score, to the solid performances and to the gentle Americana fable with life lessons intimately told. The show’s warmhearted tale and handsome production values also bode well for a family-centric market, especially on the road. But more jaded theatergoers will likely find the proceedings not so much timeless as time-consuming — a production rooted in the twee of life.
Since its premiere last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, the show — with nearly the same talent — has been tightened and brightened, with Tim Federle joining the creative team as co-book writer with Claudia Shear. The opening number is sharper, one tune is repositioned to greater effect and the role of one supporting character is expanded. There’s a bit more humor, but still not enough salt and vinegar to give the sweetness some kick.
Based on the 1975 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt, the musical centers on a self-possessed 11-year-old girl (a strong-voiced Sarah Charles Lewis, making an impressive debut) at the turn of the 20th century in New Hampshire, where she lives with her recently widowed mother (Valerie Wright) and feisty nana (Pippa Pearthree). Feeling constrained by her overprotective mom, she runs away from home and comes across teen-like Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and his mysterious brood, living deep in her family’s woods. There, she learns that about a hundred years earlier the Tucks accidentally sipped from a magical spring nearby and have remained frozen in age, immortal ever since.
The musical smartly returns the young heroine to the age of 11, after Disney’s dismal 2002 film version made the story a lifeless teen romance. Here Winnie is back in the role of curious child, in search of adventure in a wider world and encountering an enchanting family that understands her.
Dad Tuck (Michael Park) fills Winnie’s need for a paternal role model and offers the show’s melodic homily in “The Wheel” (“You can’t have living without dying”). Mom Mae Tuck (Carolee Carmello) provides maternal warmth and a golden soprano, especially in the lilting “My Most Beautiful Day.” Older brother Miles (Robert Lenzi) offers a rare glimpse of the darker side of forever, while Jesse represents the exuberance of eternal youth with an engaging performance by Keenan-Bolger.
The narrative inevitably hangs on the will-she-or-won’t-she question of whether Winnie will drink from the spring too. But that comes late in the show, and until then conflict lurks in the guise of the villainous Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann, in a delicious performance).
The Man has been on the Tuck hunt for years in pursuit of their fountain of youth. Also giving the show some welcome comic lift are Fred Applegate, wonderfully New England-dry as the town constable, and his nervous assistant Hugo (Michael Wartella, a charmer), who together do a terrific vaudevillian turn in “You Can’t Trust a Man.”
Like the children’s book, the script fudges some narrative questions and complications and grapples ever-so-lightly with the complexities of infinite life. But the narrative, at least, is always buoyed by its tuneful folk-rooted score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen (“The Burnt Part Boys”).
The stylishly rustic set by Walt Spangler is dominated by a grand, twisting marvel of a tree that dominates the proscenium, lit glowingly by Kenneth Posner. Director Casey Nicholaw, Broadway’s go-to musical comedy guy (“The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin”), here shows a more lyrical side, climaxing in a story-of-life dance number that packs an emotional wallop. At the show’s end, you’ll want to hug your family — if not a tree.