The “Tuck” in the title Tuck Everlasting is the name of a family — the Tucks: mother, father and two sons — and they are indeed everlasting. Long ago, they all took big gulps from the fountain of youth, located, of all places, in a forest in New Hampshire.
They’ve found they must keep their distance from ordinary folk. They have to split up and move around every so often or else they’d have a lot to explain to the neighbors. (I forget why, but the Tucks feel they can’t share their special spring water.)
The youngest son, Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), has been 17 for about a century, and in the first act of the new musical Tuck Everlasting, onstage at Alliance Theatre through February 22, his secret is discovered by the story’s protagonist, the appealingly clever and determined Winnie (Sarah Charles Lewis), an ordinary girl with a stultifying home life who is charmed by the glamorous, devil-may-care, bohemian lifestyle of the Tucks and is tempted to take a swig from the magic spring herself.
The world-premiere musical with Broadway ambitions is based on the 40-year-old but eternally assigned young adult novel Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.
It’s overall a pretty appealing show, cleverly staged, swiftly moving, slick and entertaining, but it still lacks a crucial sense of enchantment. In a musical, there should be some significant emotion shared between audience and characters if all that singing and high kicking is to mean something.
I never quite understood why Winnie wouldn’t just take a gulp — eternal life in the show certainly has its drawbacks and challenges, but they seem pretty minor in comparison to the woes of dreary mortality. Moreover, her dilemma about whether or not to drink is essentially internal and solitary (she’s the only one that faces it), and internal dilemmas confronted in isolation are not something that big, brassy musicals depict particularly well.
Instead of drawing closer and closer to Winnie and her world, we get a bunch of busy, vaudevillian stuff about a fair, a flashy villain and a pair of comic detectives. It’s all fun, but pretty unrelated to what should be the show’s central dramatic question.
Winnie can only speak about her internal struggle to a toad — yes, that’s right, a toad — represented onstage by a clumsy rod puppet, a silly and leadenly untheatrical device that draws us out of the drama rather than helping us enter it.
Still, the songs are decent if unmemorable, though too many of them are performed in that contemporary sing-shout Broadway style (think of the final chorus of “Tomorrow” from Annie or the witch defying gravity from deep in the diaphragm in Wicked and you’ll start to get the idea).
The best of the songs has the two detectives singing a comic number about never trusting a man in a yellow suit. It’s fun but obviously pretty far off from where the center of the show should be. It’s a good cast all around, but the best element is Shannon Eubanks as Winnie’s spaced-out, doting grandmother. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have her own number, and that’s a big oversight: she obviously should sing an early song about the magic in the woods.
Interestingly, the setup — a young woman being raised in a somewhat dull single-parent home, tempted with eternal life after meeting the members of a glamorously exotic, loving and boisterous family of immortals — is more than a little similar to the setup of the later and distinctly less literary Twilight novels.
It’s only been a few years, and those novels seem all but forgotten by the culture now, but at the height of their popularity there was a lot of feminist hand-wringing about what message those books might be imparting to young women.
Strangely, I’ve never heard any such concerns about Tuck Everlasting, in which (spoiler alert) a girl chooses a life of ordinary domesticity and child rearing over a life of eternal love, fun and adventure, with the clear implication that she’s chosen her truer, more rightful place.
In Twilight, that young lady knew she wanted a more interesting life: love, sex and immortality. She planned tirelessly until, by the last of those everlasting books, she was able to have them all. I say good for her and her trashy, unliterary self.