Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Big Budget and Spectacle Filled, Even When It Doesn't Need to Be

Review: Tuck Everlasting

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Charles Lewis as Jesse Tuck and Winnie Foster in Tuck Everlasting.

Tony-winning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw certainly seems to know what the people want. He is behind two of the biggest Broadway hits of the past 10 years, The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, and his most recent effort Something Rotten has proven surprisingly popular with both critics and audiences. All three shows share a similar tongue-in-cheek style of humor and an affinity for big song-and-dance production numbers that invoke the modernized spirit of Golden Age Broadway. So while it is admirable that Nicholaw has chosen to stretch himself with the decidedly more introspective and character-driven Tuck Everlasting, his natural instincts are at such odds with the material that this visually sumptuous but emotionally unsatisfying jumble of a show won't fully satisfy fans of either style of musical.

Based on the award-winning 1975 children's novel of the same name, Tuck Everlasting opens with 11-year-old Winnie Foster and her family still in mourning over the death of her father. Since the socially required yearlong mourning period hasn't passed, Winnie finds herself relegated to her house when all she wants to do is get out and explore the world. One night she sneaks out of the house and encounters Jesse Tuck, a 17-year-old boy whose family has a startling secret: they don't age. For the first time in a long time, Winnie feels invigorated by life thanks to her adventures with Jesse, and must contemplate her own mortality and whether or not to forfeit it for a chance to live with Jesse forever.

This fantastical premise opens the door for a surprisingly mature philosophical debate on the benefits and drawbacks of immortality, quite a large question for a family musical to tackle. Claudia Shear and Tim Federle's book handles the issue with grace, keeping the material accessible to children without completely shying away from the story's bittersweet overtones. Unfortunately their handling of plotting and characterization is much more rudimentary, giving us only the broadest sketches of the characters who inhabit this world.

In a better musical, Chris Miller and Nathan Tyson's score would pick up the narrative slack, but here too Tuck Everlasting disappoints. The pair definitely clearly have talent, as evidenced by a handful of charming songs including Winnie's signature "Good Girl Winnie Foster," but is inconsistently displayed here. Miller's melodies can get repetitive and Tyson's lyrics are filled with forced rhymes and poorly worded ideas, shortcomings that are all the more frustrating when other songs in the show lack these problems. Both the book and score can't seem to settle on just how sophisticated they'd like to be, as if scared that becoming too clever will alienate their young audience (this does not seem to be an issue for Tuck's next door neighbor, the exceedingly clever and long-running Matilda).

Muddying the waters even further is Nicholaw's direction, straining and ultimately failing to marry his love of big budget Broadway spectacle with the show's small scale tendencies. Nicholaw repeatedly has his chorus of dancers prancing around in the background during what should be intimate character moments, distracting from rather than adding to the principle casts' performances. And for the amount of choreography present, it is surprisingly generic, with the same handful of moves performed ad nauseam. The show works best when Nicholaw allows the material to speak for itself, such as the simple yet moving Act II ballad "The Wheel" or Winnie and Jesse's first meeting, "Top of the World."

The cast is all charming and likable, even when they are visibly struggling to elevate the material they've been given. Sarah Charles Lewis is quite the find as Winnie, poised and graceful with a pure and lovely voice. Hers is a wonderfully naturalistic, unlabored performance that you wish had informed the rest of the show, as she manages to impress without resorting to flashy tricks. Golden-voiced Andrew Keenan-Bolger is a great foil to Lewis as the forever young Jesse Tuck, matching her youthful energy every step of the way.

Carolee Carmello and Michael Park are underutilized as Ma and Pa Tuck, but do well with what little material they are given. And Robert Lenzi provides a refreshing jolt of mature energy as the elder Tuck son Miles, doing the best job of portraying the emotional strain living forever has taken on the family. As the villain of the story, Terrence Mann is certainly committed to his hammy portrayal, but it is such an odd performance that is never feels either threatening or entertaining, just bizarre.

The show's elaborate production design is certainly pretty to look at, with Walt Spangler's jewel-toned set providing an excellent amount of visual variety over the show's runtime. But while the multi-leveled versatility of Spangler's design is certainly impressive, it ultimately becomes distracting, with every new set piece adding to the production's bloated feeling. Gregg Barnes' costumes are similarly intriguing/off-putting, meticulously realized but bordering on overdesigned. The most successful design element is Kenneth Posner's lighting, which always enhances the storytelling rather than competing with it.

Given the number of high quality family musicals currently playing Broadway, it is difficult to justify the need for Tuck Everlasting. The show is serviceable, but nothing about it seems quite fully formed. No one on the creative team seems to know what type of show they want to make - should it be intimate and character driven or splashy and spectacle-laden? - and that tonal tension is apparent onstage. The youngest audiences members are certain not to care, but more discerning theatregoers can likely find a better family outing among Broadway's many musical offerings (the aforementioned Matilda and Aladdin both spring to mind).

1 comment:

  1. Maybe Casey Nicholaw should take a break. Directing five shows at once would be a pain for anyone.