This pretty-as-a picture new musical is by newcomers to the musical theatre, book writers Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, Composer Chris Miller, and lyricist Nathan Tysen. The story, based on a novel by Natalie Babbitt, tells of the Tuck family of four, all destined to live forever because of a drink they’d imbibed from a pond in a forest near their home. Their condition is all a big secret until danger lurks, because of its discovery by a circus performer called The Man In The Yellow Suit, who is something of a soothsayer, who claims to be able to tell anyone’s age merely by looking into their eyes.
As played by veteran Terrence Mann, he is a very merry fellow, and Mann is giving a broad performance in the Danny Kaye tradition. The eleven year old central character is Winnie Foster, a fatherless girl whose mother and granny are usually at odds as to how much freedom she’s to be allowed. It’s Granny who seems the more liberated, and she’s played like a pleasant kook by Pippa Pearthree, who’s not above making many a point by thrusting her knitting needles into the air, and at her adversaries, particularly the Man in the Yellow Suit. Winnie’s mother offers Carolee Carmello a chance to move from Finding Neverland to this world of Brigadoon in which once you’ve swallowed the magical water, you can join those good folks in Scotland, except they only come alive for one day every hundred years. And that’s a helluva fate.
Winnie is only eleven, so she hasn’t had much adventure, and certainly no romance in her life. She’s sort of stuck in the neighborhood, and her mother fusses over her more than she’d like. One night, when she dares to head for a local fair, she meets Jesse Tuck, the seventeen year old member of the family that can never die. She has finally found a friend, and he doesn’t want to ruin everything by telling her the truth about his odd condition. But when he does, he gives her a vial of the fountain of youth, and asks her to keep it until she’s seventeen, at which time she will be the same age as he, and won’t that be fine? What she does about that offer is the stuff of which the far more engrossing second act is comprised.
Andrew Keenan Bolger is a most appealing 31, and has no problem convincing us he’s actually 17. His older brother is played by Robert Lenzi and father Tuck is the stalwart Michael Park, both of whom sing well, look comfortable in the rural and simple clothing. A beautiful and vigorous ensemble perform Casey Nicholaw’s demanding choreography beautifully. They weave in and out of the story, lending atmosphere, showing us more of the life of the town than any factual book scenes could. And the final ballet sequence, in which Winnie’s decision is imaginatively staged with no words at all, is first-rate. Yet the story line remains clear, and the resolution is very moving.
The Miller-Tysen score is,adequate, and the lyrics do occasionally further the story along, but the tunes don’t quite cut the mustard, and the lyrics and their very titles tell us that they are for the most part, merely “on the nose”. Not many surprises there. The dance music arrangements by David Chase make watching a dozen dancers, giving their talented all, the highlight of the show. The forest in which much of the action takes place, the buildings that dot the rural landscape, are beautifully designed and lit by Walt Spangler and Kenneth Posner, as a gift wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow. There’s even a frog in an important supporting role, and he figures in the plot right up to the finale.
As I said though, the final fifteen minutes in which the story is wrapped up, is musical theatre at its finest, and it does send us back to the New York streets with a star or two in our eyes. But up there with Bright Star, it further proves that writers are still dreaming, and coming up with material to fight the abrasions and cruelties of the world outside.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.