Immortality, like Krazy Glue, styrofoam and the two-party system, seems like a great idea — until you find your fingers stuck together under a mountain of landfill with Donald Trump running for President. The premise of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 YA novel was that in an earlier century, a rural New Hampshire family of Tucks drank from a spring whose waters set them in time forever: Ma and Pa Tuck in mid-parenthood; Miles and Jesse Tuck as older and younger brother, respectively. When teenage Jesse (who by now is in fact 104) encounters pre-teen local lass Winnie Foster in the woods one day, friendship blooms, and possibly love. Jesse and his family reluctantly share their secret. Winnie has a coming-of-age experience denied her would-be beau. Emotional landfill piles up all around. And what about the creepy guy in the yellow suit, skulking around with larceny in his narrowed eyes?
Between the time Tuck Everlasting was published and 2002, when Disney turned a sentimental story into simple syrup, Harry Potter happened, changing, probably forever, adult ideas of what children wanted to read. Sure, Roald Dahl did a pretty fine job of that well before J.K. Rowling, but not on the global HP scale, in which children by the millions lined up for the latest installment of a story that challenged them to become immersed in long, twisty narratives combining fantasies of good and evil with the everyday tribulations of being a kid.
All of which is my circuitous way of avoiding the mostly depressing task of writing about the latest Tuck family visit, in the form of a Broadway musical so treacly you may leave the Broadhurst Theatre wanting to kick a puppy. This is mildly surprising because the team behind the show is not known for overdosing on corn syrup: The book is by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, she of the agreeably wicked Dirty Blonde, he of the theater-geeky comic novel Better Nate Than Ever. The score is by Chris Miller (composer) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), whose haunting, coal-country musical The Burnt Part Boys was a highlight of the Vineyard Theater’s musical theater program awhile back. And the director/choreographer is the ingenious Casey Nicholaw, whose impressive resume includes Something Rotten!, Aladdin and the mad dancing in The Book of Mormon.
Nicholaw and his team do tap into the spirit of Agnes De Mille with the show’s most inspired, wholly theatrical device, a ballet in which Winnie’s passage from girlhood through adolescence, marriage, motherhood and old age have echoes of Carousel and deliver a nonverbal gut-wrench showing what Winnie will experience and will forever be denied Jesse and his clan.
Jesse is played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, an amiable actor who really does seem eternally youthful. Winnie is played by newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis and — I will try to whisper this softly, taking no pleasure in it — she is charmless, with all the attributes of an over-prepared, too-polished child actor. Veteran Carolee Carmello, late of Finding Neverland, is sympathetic as Jesse’s Mom, as is Michael Park as his Pa.
But the best bit of casting is Terrence Mann as the evil Man in the Yellow Suit. Not only because costume designer Gregg Barnes gives him threads that prompt Winnie’s grandma (Pippa Pearthree) to call him “an evil banana” but because of the sheer malignant joy Mann brings to a comic-book turn. Here’s Rum Tum Tugger and Inspector Javert and the Beast himself, tricked out as a carny barker-cum-Rooster Hannigan, practically drooling over the prospect of bottling the secret waters and building an empire on eternity. Mann (with the help of additional knowing vaudeville turns from Fred Applegate and Michael Wartella) transforms a hopeless Act I into a nearly salvageable Act II. Still, unlike the unlucky Tucks, this material aged out long ago and far away.