The Broadhurst Theatre at 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY is the Broadway home of Tuck Everlasting, a book musical by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, based upon the bestselling novel of the same name by Natalie Babbitt. “If you could live forever, would you?” This is the play’s theme and marketing slogan, brilliantly devised and executed by Type A Marketing and Matt Ross Public Relations in a campaign to lure us into the theatre. But it was the all-knowing, far reaching, magnificent tree by scenic designer Walt Spangler that drew me in to the theatre upon arriving, not unlike it did for the play’s characters.
I attended the April 23, 2016 2:00 p.m. matinee, one of the last preview performances prior to opening night, April 26, 2016, making it the latest eligible production to be considered in the next round of TONY nominations. Since its opening, the show did generate one TONY nomination for Gregg Barnes’ timeless yet complex costume designs which enlivened the production by harmonizing color, ornamentation and texture with the narrative, music and dancing. Using threads to weave a tale of their own, Barnes employed such techniques as repurposing old linen tablecloths embroidered with ivy for women’s corsets. His use of color was striking and provocative such as with the character The Man In The Yellow Suit (Terrance Mann), an unusual unnamed antagonist, who used intense vocalization and the energy of this color to project his bold attempt at control, intimidation and overuse of his personal power. Onstage costume changes were effortless, further evidence of Barnes’ skill in design with great attention to authenticity as well as production budget considerations. Barnes is certainly worthy of the nomination, but so were a host of other actors and artists who exchanged a range of energy with the audience for a memorable and moving theatrical experience.
I actually gasped upon seeing scenic designer Walt Spangler’s tree, made famous by the media coverage of the dramatic load-in, and whose omnipresence began as I entered the theatre and saw it in full view with arms (branches) sweeping across the arch and both sides of the stage as if to create its own proscenium. And it was through this arched portal and the voice of the everlasting tree that we entered the world of Winnie Foster and were forced to face our own mortality in the faces of the Tucks, who would live forever. For Mae and Angus Tuck (Carolee Carmello and Michael Park) and their boys Jesse and Miles (Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Robert Lenzi) it was too late, for they had drunk the magical water in the spring by the tree and become the Tucks everlasting.
Walt Spangler’s seemingly sentient tree continued to come to life through remarkable mechanical design and construction. Bent wood panels designed to appear as curls of bark on the trunk brilliantly served as steps to Winnie and Jesse, allowing them to effortlessly and fluidly climb the enormous tree while singing “Top of the World.” Audible gasps were heard in the audience when, in a matter of seconds, they were in the tree top, then quickly out on a branched canopy above center stage, high in the sky. It was a symbiotic exchange between the set, the actors and audience as we felt their thrill to climb to the top of the world. The tree branch was mechanized and lowered the actors back down to center stage in a natural flow and sense of organization. Although the tree was never animated with a personality, the audience could sense its purpose and energy like that of a soulful shaman in character. Spangler’s thematic temporal symbolism continued in the design of the Tuck cabin where dozens of dusty clocks hung cluttered on attic walls, no longer useful in the Tucks’ everlasting lives. He also designed seamless scenic transitions where actors carried out their stage business with ease.
A very effective use of props was the music box and a mechanical frog. The music box served to call up long lost memories and introduce as if by accident, a loving and lilting performance by Carolee Carmello with the song, “My Most Beautiful Day.” This theme was also included in a highly effective social media marketing effort inviting fans to submit videos of their most beautiful day.
Kenneth Posner’s lighting design integrated beautifully with Spangler’s sets with the use of gobos to transition seasons of the year and those of the characters’ lives. Most effective was perhaps the gobo gels and templates that made the tree come to life with blowing leaves and branches, as well as, the changing lighting on layered scrims in various scenes.
Along the guessing game narrative of will Winnie or will she not drink the magic water, now saved for her by Jesse in a bottle, (a strong visual prop), we were lifted into humor by incredibly clever lyrics written by Nathan Tysen. In combination with Chris Miller’s music compositions and a live orchestra (also used for sound effects) conducted by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, all our senses were tickled by the end of Act One.
Act Two focuses not only on culmination of the narrative and its dramatic conclusion, but on a sense of homecoming and resonance that can only be expressed so capably by such a seasoned cast. Michael Park’s time on Broadway after exiting daytime drama has been a worthwhile endeavor in developing his acting craft and ability to connect with emotion. Park delivers a powerfully emotional punch as Angus Tuck in singing “The Wheel” while imparting Winnie’s life lesson, “You can’t have living without dying,” and “You don’t need to live forever; you just need to live.” The obvious energetic bond between Park and 11 year old newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie Foster is undeniable in this pond scene, which by night’s end became my favorite. It was no accident this was a pivotal scene and so naturally brought to life by Spangler’s realistic boat bobbing, swaying and pivoting on a foggy pond by the use of scenic motion control systems provided by Production Resource Group.
Sarah Charles Lewis’ enthusiastic portrayal of the protagonist Winnie Foster showed strong command of body and voice, especially for her young age and lack of stage experience. It is surprising she did not earn a breakthrough performance TONY nomination, but this is only her Broadway debut and I will bet we will be seeing a lot more of her in years to come.
Although the play covered a time period of 160 years in just two and one half hours, its mastery of time might well be attributed to Choreographer and Director Casey Nicholaw rather than the magic water. Nicholaw ties up the loose ends in a brilliant ballet of insightful blocking direction and wordless stage movements that weave generations of time into a beautiful and poignant full circle ending. Using expression of movement to convey what is normally spoken word, along with music and dance, he mesmerizes the audience into a hypnotic meditation, establishing an individual connection that allows each person to write their own personal concluding truth. This highly powerful storytelling and emotional connection to the audience covered a rather lengthy period of time but not once was uncomfortable. After some time the audible energy was not that of the actors on stage, but from the audience members trying to contain their emotions. When the house lights went up at curtain call, many in the audience were still hugging their seat mates and wiping away tears.
Tuck Everlasting lures us to the theatre in search of the answer to the question, “If you could live forever, would you?” Rather than answer it for us, the play takes us on a journey of shared spirits and senses, allowing us to answer for ourselves in the silence of our own hearts in a beautiful climactic exchange between performer and observer. But, wait a minute. Who’s the performer and who’s the observer here? I suddenly felt a mutual consciousness with the actors and a slow dissolve of the fourth wall without it actually having been broken. For an Americana, moralizing tale, Tuck Everlasting delivered with surprisingly authentic inspiration, imagination, wit and poignancy.