Tuck Everlasting: A Winnie-Winnie Situation

Opening Night   Tuck Everlasting: A Winnie-Winnie Situation
 
Director Casey Nicholaw officially has four shows on Broadway with the opening of Tuck Everlasting and gets his dream ballet.
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The Broadway season shuffles along this week. We’re in the final stretch with The Tucks bowing last night and The Tyrones opening tonight—clans who, heretofore, have never come up in the same sentence but who both are embroiled in long and troublesome journeys. The Tucks of Tuck Everlasting, cursed with eternal life, keep trudging on.

The curtain at the Broadhurst rose April 26 on the mountain greenery that Tucks call home. There’s a magical spring that runs through it, and it has made Angus (Michael Park) and Mae (Carolee Carmello) and their two sons, Miles (Robert Lenzi) and Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), impervious to death. Unfortunately, this gift of life is not all it’s cracked up to be. It means living a reclusive life in the woodsy wilderness (a perfectly agreeable paradise, realized in fanciful detail by designer Walt Spangler) and moving on every few decades lest it’s noticed they don’t age.

Into this land that time forgot runs a redheaded 11-year-old runaway, Winnie Foster (played with astonishing precision and precocity by an actual 11-year-old, Sarah Charles Lewis), upsetting the Tucks’ applecart. Were this Kentucky and not New England of 1893, she would be a good match for Jesse, who is 102 going on 17. He slips her some transformative spring water and tells her to come back in six years.

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Sarah Charles Lewis in Tuck Everlasting Joan Marcus

The beauty of this show, adapted by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle from Natalie Babbitt’s novel and musicalized by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, is that Winnie doesn’t drink. In the 2002 movie, a rare miscalculation from Disney, she opts for the spring awakening and goes PG-rated skinny-dipping with Jesse. Suddenly it’s another story.

Instead of pursuing a babes-in-the-woods love story as the movie did, the musical considered its source and took the high road. The decision wound up giving director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw the opportunity to stage—sweet shades of Agnes de Mille!—an eight-minute ballet that spans eight decades of Winnie’s life.

“I’ve always wanted to do a ballet about that, and I finally found the show to do it in,” Nicholaw beamed. “I did a very small version of it—a three-minute sort of thing with five people in it—for a presentation, and then when I realized how much plot had to be covered at the end, I decided to expand on that ballet. I’m so proud of it.”

With Tuck Everlasting now joining The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten! on the Main Stem, Nicholaw is elevated to a rarified atmosphere, equaling Susan Stroman’s record of four shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

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But, he hastened to add, his new show is not as fall-down-funny as the other three. “It does take you on a journey—a slow, small, simple journey that is actually big in scope. It’s a slow burn that ends up being about something big, even though you don’t know it will be when you start. I love that you see this little girl who’s dressed all prim and proper, you see this weird guy in yellow and you see this family, and you don’t know in the beginning how they’re all going to connect with each other.”

Given the dominant color-scheme of Tuck Everlasting, the only place it could properly be celebrated was Tavern on the Green, and that’s where first-nighters reassembled for the after-party. The joint was jumping and jubilant for hours.

The 11-year-old belle of the ball glided through the whole party with grown-up grace and assurance. “My performing inspiration all started at my performing-arts school back in Atlanta,” young Lewis said. “That was the spark that made me want to perform. When I was about five, I started dancing—like tap and ballet—in one little class. My parents always said I could sing before I could talk.”

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She acts, too, and seems to have a firm grasp of her character. “I love that Winnie wants to meet new people and learn new things. Basically, she is like any kid who dreams of going on an adventure. She’s curious and wants to know more every day.”

The chronically boyish Keenan-Bolger, who makes his entrance on a silo rising out of the stage, swings and bounds about like a regular teenager. “It’s true, I do a lot of climbing in this show,” he said. “As a kid, I was such a tree climber and a rock climber. I loved the Jungle Gym. You never know what a musical will ask you to do.”

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Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Charles Lewis in Tuck Everlasting Joan Marcus

He was relieved his role didn’t take a romantic turn. “Our show sticks pretty close to Natalie Babbitt’s book. She’s been involved since the very first reading. That guided our hand. I think we ended up creating what her version of the musical would be.”

Actress-comedienne Shear (Dirty Blonde) huddled with Babbitt before beginning the adaptation. “She gave me a free hand, with one or two caveats that were personal to her—and I wrote for six years,” Shear said. “I never watched the Disney movie—that was one of the caveats. Natalie asked me never to see the film, and so far I haven’t.”

The 18-song score marks the Broadway bows of composer Miller and lyricist Tysen. They grew up with the Babbitt book, which attained a cult status as The Fountainhead for the middle school set. “We both read it in school and just always loved it,” Miller admitted. “When we graduated from NYU, we were talking about musicals that we wanted to write, and Tuck Everlasting went to the top of the list.”

The songwriters debuted Off-Broadway six years ago at Playwrights Horizons with The Burnt Part Boys, another agrarian-flavored musical. “Both of us love American folk music and stories that sorta grow from the earth,” Miller explained.

According to Tysen, Park got the part of the Tuck patriarch primarily because of a deliciously dead-on imitation of John Wayne in The Burnt Part Boys. As Angus Tuck, he gets the best line in the show (delivered to Winnie): “You don’t have to live forever. You just have to live.” It was the only thing that was plucked from the film.

The biggest obstacle in the adaptation was a character identified only as The Man in the Yellow Suit, a creepy carnie guy who guesses ages at the fair. When he peers into Jesse’s orbs and sees 102 years, he plots to partake of that spring water. “We never wanted him to come off melodramatically like Snidely Whiplash,” said Miller. “We always wanted it to be ambiguous, like ‘Is he going to make me cookies, or is he going to kill me?’ It was tricky for us, too. Where we landed was that ambiguous territory, and Terrence Mann—who’s great in the part—definitely lives in that world.”

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Terrence Mann in Tuck Everlasting Joan Marcus

Mann’s take on The Man is simple enough: “He’s a desperate man who wants to live forever. He’s sincere in what he wants, but he’s misguided and obsessed.”

Other unwelcome trespassers who venture upon Tuck turf are the slow-witted constable (Fred Applegate) and deputy (Michael Wartella) searching for runaway Winnie. They bring a lot of showbiz razzamatazz to their old-fashioned, all-stops-out showstopper.

Applegate’s comedy is particularly well-seasoned. “When I started out in TV,” he recalled, “I was working with Bob Newhart, and he taught me how to wait. It’s a little risky, but, when you get away with it, it’s great. Constable Joe is so dry.”

Lenzi’s performance of Jesse’s older brother exudes a dark, haunted quality different from the rest of the characters. And he’s happy with it: “When you’re an actor who comes to New York to do theatre, it’s a dream come true to originate a role like this.”

Carmello has found an interesting side to her matriarch: “She’s maternal, but she also has an almost sibling kind of relationship with her boys because they’ve all lived 100 years so they seem to have become brother-sister as well as parent-son.”

Next, and next-to-the-last, stop for Broadway 2015-2016 is the Tyrone family picnic at the American Airlines Theatre, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Tragedy tonight.

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