Theater review: Young Atlantan shines in Broadway’s ‘Tuck Everlasting’

NEW YORK — The first singing we hear in “Tuck Everlasting” comes from the lips of Sarah Charles Lewis, and for the 11-year-old Atlanta native making her Broadway debut, they seem well-nigh perfect for the occasion: “Today is the day, I’ve been waiting forever.”

As Winnie Foster, the young girl at the center of this lovely meditation on the price of immortality, Lewis is living her dream, and the Alliance Theatre, where the show was developed last year, has scored another triumph.

In the 15-year tenure of artistic director Susan V. Booth, the Woodruff Arts Center’s resident theater company has given birth to five shows that have made the transition from Peachtree to Broadway (“The Color Purple,” “Sister Act,” “Come Fly Away,” “Bring It On: The Musical” and “Tuck”). It has also spawned two national tours (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk”).

Wait, there’s more: This fall, Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer of “Tuck,” will return to Atlanta to stage “The Prom,” about a young woman’s attempt to take her girlfriend to her high-school dance and the comedic capers that follow. It is a flat-out certainty that “The Prom,” based on a concept by legendary producer Jack Viertel, will travel to the Big Apple.

In fostering relationships with these Broadway titans, Booth has made the Alliance a national powerhouse. (The theater won the regional Tony Award in 2007.) She has also made the theatergoing experience a lot more interesting for Atlanta audiences, who get to see important new work as it is created and tried out for the first time.

Oddly enough, the newly fashioned Broadway telling of “Tuck” doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the Atlanta original, for me, at least. With music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle (who is new to the team), the plot feels streamlined and the tone sanitized, making it a perfect family-friendly option. (When the Tony Award nominations were announced Tuesday, “Tuck” received only one, for costume designer Gregg Barnes.)

The story, if you don’t know it, is based on Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s novel. Set in 1893, it juxtaposes the sunny natural world of Winnie, her mother (Valerie Wright) and grandmother (Pippa Pearthree) — and the dangerous netherworld of the Tuck family, who drank from a magical, time-altering spring on the Fosters’ property 85 years ago. Since that day, the Tucks have not aged, a condition that is more damnation than salvation.

“Tuck Everlasting” — which unspools on a stage that Walt Spangler (sets) and Kenneth Posner (lighting) alternately splash with “Tarzan” greens, Cirque du Soleil yellows and “Little Mermaid” blues — is a study of yearning. Winnie, who is mourning the loss of her father, wants to go to the town carnival. Jesse Tuck (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), who looks 17 but is really 102, wants Winnie to wait a few years, drink the water and spend the rest of eternity with him.

Jesse’s mother (the luminous Carolee Carmello) pines for the day she put on a blue dress and married her husband, Angus (Michael Park). She was young and the world was full of promise and love (“My Most Beautiful Day”). The oldest Tuck son, Miles (Robert Lenzi), describes in the deeply affecting solo “Time” how he is haunted by the wife and son who dismissed him as a freak, and abandoned him.

Stirring the pot is The Man in the Yellow Suit (the fantastic Terrence Mann), who wants to usurp the Fosters’ land and get rich (“Everything’s Golden”). (The cast also includes the hilarious Fred Applegate as the dry-witted town constable and Michael Wartella as Hugo, his bumbling deputy-son.)

Nicholaw, who currently has four shows on Broadway (“Tuck,” “The Book of Mormon, “Aladdin” and “Something Rotten!”), is a choreographer first and foremost. We see this in the varied dance vocabulary that graces the show — from beautifully crafted ballets to rough-and-tumble hoe-down-style numbers with cartwheels and high-jumps. These old-fashioned dances give the show a timeless air, and enable Lewis to prove she is a triple threat.

For like Winnie Foster, this talented young woman does not need a magic potion to embrace joy. Possessed of a wonderful singing voice and a radiant sense of self, she is on the cusp of something lasting, something eternal. It will be a pleasure to track her next move, and the Alliance’s, too.

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