CTM’s regional premiere of the musical Tuck Everlasting begins with a frail and aged Winnie Foster (Trudy Barash) listening to a delicate tune on a music box, given to her by a friend long ago. On the keepsake’s lid is an intricate carving of a tree — mirrored in the enormous the tree that towers over the performers, carefully wrought to fill the entire back wall of the Overture’s Playhouse (stunning design by Christopher Dunham). This tree overlooks a revolving stage-cum-giant clock—the ideal platform for a magical journey that examines life, death and immortality through buoyant songs, inspired choreography and delightful performances by the 28-person cast, led by the luminous 13 year-old Malea Niesen and uber-talented APT regular James Ridge.
Natalie Babbitt’s book, Tuck Everlasting, is a standard on middle school reading lists and had been translated into movies and stage plays before it made its Broadway debut in 2016 as a musical with a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. After a tepid reception by critics, this latest incarnation closed after only 39 performances. In his review in Vulture, Jesse Green predicted that the show would be relegated to “gymacafetoriums” in middle schools across the country. I can’t speak to what prevented this Tuck from becoming a Broadway hit, but after seeing CTM’s production of the piece, I predict that, like the musical Big Fish, it will instead have a long life in regional theaters—particularly if it’s done this well in other venues.
The musical, masterfully directed and choreographed by Brian Cowing, traces the story of 11 year-old Winnie Foster (Niesen), a spunky young girl who longs for adventure, rather than the rules of Victorian etiquette and mourning — her father passed away less than a year ago, leaving her in the company of her mother (a subdued Karen Moeller) and grandmother (the wise-cracking Patricia Kugler Whitely), practically homebound and required to wear black.
In a rebellious afternoon she dons a colorful new dress and escapes to the woods behind her New Hampshire house where she meets the charming teenager Jesse Tuck (the ebullient Patrick Sisson), part of a family that is blessed — and cursed — with eternal life after drinking from an enchanted spring. While Jesse’s parents (the warm but weary couple Gail Becker and Nathan Connor) and brother Miles (the brooding Nick Narcisi) all have different perspectives on their eternal lives, Winnie is delighted by the idea, particularly if it includes traveling the world with her new pal Jesse. Enter the villain, the Man in the Yellow Suit (Ridge, as a delightfully cynical showman), who travels with the carnival, guessing people’s ages and searching for the Tuck family’s fountain of youth so he can make a fortune bottling and selling the elixir.
Supported by a large adult ensemble and a nine-piece orchestra (led by Andrew Abrams), the cast of Tuck Everlasting is uniformly strong, both musically and dramatically. But the soul of the piece rests squarely on Niesen’s shoulders and she carries it almost effortlessly. Her long brunette curls bounce as she sings, dances, and climbs trees in the woods. Her natural and assured presence onstage spills over to her singing, which is strong and unpretentious. Niesen’s every move and impulse seems new and spontaneous, and her youthful optimism, combined with naiveté, is refreshing rather than cloying. In other words, she is a perfect guide for the audience as we follow her adventures and ponder which path she should take.
As her love interest, Sisson embodies an almost limitless enthusiasm for life, while, as his brother Miles, Narcisi captures the dark side of eternity. In the moving solo “Time,” he tells the story of losing his wife and son when they desert him, suspecting his age-less body is bewitched. Mother Mae Tuck (Becker) also sings of melancholy memories and distant times as she remembers her youth in the lovely number, “My Most Beautiful Day.” Counter balancing these poignant moments is Ridge’s pull-out-all-the-stops, gleeful gluttony as the scheming carnie in “Everything’s Golden,” which opens the second act with a bang. With a delightfully expressive singing voice, he revels in being bad and watching his plan to own the secret spring come together.
The only two characters who seem shoe-horned into the show are Constable Joe (a goofy John Jajewski) and his ambitious new deputy, Hugo (a charmingly awkward Sam Galvin). Their stories feel like unnecessary detours to the larger plot, and although both performers give it their all in musical numbers, the show sags during these side trips.
Throughout the musical there are a lot of bodies onstage — the adult chorus is in constant motion, haunting the forest, sweeping pieces of scenery on and off, rotating the turntable by hand, and portraying a host of characters. But careful blocking and choreography make all the movement seem graceful rather than cluttered. Dance sequences are both ambitious and precisely executed throughout the show, but they are beautifully upstaged by a word-less ballet that closes the play and moved much of the audience to tears on opening night. Like the heart-wrenching opening of the animated classic Up, it is a stunning summation of lives lived well.
It is fitting for a story about love, family, the passage of time, and the succession of generations to features actors whose ages span seven decades. But it is still astonishing to see a third grader sharing the stage with a septuagenarian. Far from a trick of the light or an artful application of stage makeup, it is an honest and beautiful illustration of the show’s theme — that living forever might seem attractive, but the reality of immortality, at least for the Tuck family, is bittersweet. It turns out that part of life’s value comes from its limits, and from fulfilling changing roles as time goes on; from child to spouse, to parent and grandparent, to memory.
An edited version of this review will appear in Isthmus.