For many young readers, myself included, Natalie Babbitt's enduring -- dare I say, immortal? -- novel "Tuck Everlasting" was and continues to be a memorable childhood reading experience; an ever-popular choice for teachers and students alike. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is currently presenting the 2016 Broadway musical version of the magical, melancholy tale, which seems likely to be a crowd pleaser for audience members of all ages.
Most of the action takes place in 1893, when 11-year-old Winnie Foster (Katie Maupin, alternating in the role with Natalie Schroeder) is living in the tiny town of Treegap, New Hampshire. Overprotected by her loving but strict mother, Betsy (Teressa Foss) with the help of her wisecracking grandmother Nana (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), Winnie is mourning the death of her father and feeling stifled by her sheltered, dull existence. Like many a young-adult protagonist or Disney princess before her, she longs for adventure and more than the world within her garden gates. "I can't live like this forever," she ironically sings. Angry at her mother for not letting her go to the carnival coming to Treegap for one night only, she runs away, following a friendly toad into the mysterious woods her family has owned for decades but that she's never been allowed to explore.
There, she meets hunky Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey), who quickly takes her under his wing and teaches her about the joys of climbing trees while forbidding her from drinking from a certain spring. Soon the plot point around which "Tuck Everlasting" revolves is revealed: The spring is magic and grants immortality to those who drink from it. Jesse, along with mother Mae (Kristine Reese), elder brother Miles (Travis Leland) and father Angus (Jonathan Rhys Williams) all unwittingly drank from the spring nearly a century ago and haven't aged a day since.
Meanwhile, a smooth-talking carny known only as the Man in the Yellow Suit (Michael Gene Sullivan) is in hot pursuit of the Tucks, desperate to know the secret to their longevity so he can exploit it, and willing to use Winnie as collateral. Winnie's mother has the local constable (Colin Thomson) searching for the missing girl, aided by his young deputy Hugo (David Crane), nervously taking on his first case.
Jesse is stuck at age 17, on the cusp of adolescence and manhood, forever. Once he confesses the Tuck family secrets to Winnie, he gets an idea. He urges her to wait six years until she, too, turns 17, then drink the water so that she can join him in eternal life as his wife and partner in hijinks. (Yes, it is somewhat creepy that a nearly-adult male is grooming an 11-year-old to commit her life to him, even if he does ask her to wait until she's older).
Some time spent with the rest of the Tuck family leads Winnie to question the wisdom of Jesse's proposal. Living forever, it turns out, isn't all it's cracked up to be. In turn, Mae, Miles and Angus all share with Winnie the pains of being cast outside of the normal cycle of life. Mae explains that the family can only get together once a decade to avoid raising suspicions and mourns the loss of wonder and excitement from her too-long life. Miles tells her how he once had a wife and child but they feared his condition and left him, never to be seen again. Angus teaches her that death is an essential part of life; that it's meant to be finite and that living fully is what matters. Winnie is left to decide which path she wants to follow.
It's a compelling story and if the stage version (directed by Robert Kelley) leaves out a bit of the novel's darkness, it does a great job of showcasing its bittersweetness and beauty. Most moving is the wordless ballet scene toward the end, expertly choreographed by Alex Perez, which depicts the passing of time and the way families experience love and loss. The show harkens back in theme and tone to some theater classics, including "Peter Pan," "Carousel" and "Our Town" in its tear-jerking moments.
The cast, many members of which play multiple roles, is strong across the board. My personal favorite moments came from the hilarious duo of Crane and Thomson as the bumbling-yet-virtuous detectives. Their two numbers ("Hugo's First Case" and "You Can't Trust a Man") were both musical and comedy highlights. The rest of the score is pretty, if prone to dullness at times, with Artie Storch's percussion adding a spritely touch in the place of standard drums.
Period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are gorgeous as usual (I loved the much-discussed yellow suit) and the set, by Joe Ragey, is a delight, with a forest of twinkling fireflies and a majestic ash tree extending beyond the proscenium.
The musical adaptation has strong TheatreWorks ties. Composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen first wrote songs for it as part of one of the company's retreats, back in 2010. Script co-author Tim Federle has local roots as well, growing up in Foster City.
Though the show was somewhat of a Broadway flop, it's a great choice for a family-friendly holiday production. Everyone from my 5-year-old to the senior citizens sitting near us seemed to enjoy it immensely.
"Tuck Everlasting," first published in 1975, has indeed proved a lastingly resonant story. TheatreWorks has come up with a worthy take on the neo-classic.
What: "Tuck Everlasting."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Dec. 30; showtimes vary.
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.