BWW Review: Life Springs Eternal in Nashville Children's Theatre's TUCK EVERLASTING

Ernie Nolan and his stellar crew of theatrical collaborators at Nashville Children's Theatre once again prove their mettle with a production worthy of adulation and acclaim, thanks to their world premiere of the TYA (theater for young audiences) version of the recent Broadway musical Tuck Everlasting. Based on Natalie Babbitt's 1975 novel - long considered one of the finest works ever written expressly for young readers - Tuck Everlasting is a thing of beauty, whether onstage or on the page, and audiences unfamiliar with either the book or the play are in for an emotional, thought-provoking journey that reverberates long after the final bows ring down the show's curtain.

If you are familiar with Babbitt's work, you may rest assured that Tuck Everlasting, the musical, treats the original literature upon which it is based with deference, bringing the characters and their various individual stories together in such a way that you may find yourself awash in tears and reflection, yet somehow uplifted and grateful for the journey, in its aftermath.

With a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (the composers of the recent Street Theatre Company musical The Burnt Part Boys), the stage iteration of Tuck Everlasting, which did not prove to be a major hit on Broadway during its abbreviated run, will likely find its audience among the devotees of theater for young audiences, for whom the story and its lovely musical score is certain to resonate deeply and profoundly.

A fanciful, mystical tale of immortality and loss, Tuck Everlasting is brought to life onstage at Nashville Children's Theatre by a cast of some of the region's best known and most beloved actors, proving that musical theater here stands head and shoulders above that often found in other parts of the country. In a town long revered as Music City USA, one can rest assured that the Miller/Tysen score is beautifully performed, adding a palpable sense of creative gravitas to the proceedings. The presence of Messrs. Miller and Tysen during the rehearsal process at NCT no doubt inspired Nolan's cast to perform at the very top of their game, ensuring a new version of Tuck Everlasting that moves at an engaging pace, while keeping the show's dramatic import and emotional heft squarely in position to make their audiences think, rather more deeply than they might otherwise.

BWW Review: Life Springs Eternal in Nashville Children's Theatre's TUCK EVERLASTING
Geoff Davin and Nan Gurley

With some artful and judicious editing of the script - re-shaping it within the parameters necessary for TYA success - Tuck Everlasting asks its audience to ponder the query: "If you could, would you choose to live forever?" With immortality comes great responsibility and the pervasive sense of loneliness and despair that is a part of a life which never ends (despite the possibilities for life-changing adventure and the continued beating of the hearts of those you love best) requires deeply considered thought, perhaps making one's answer more difficult to ascertain. More to the point, if you could keep alive forever those people in your life whom you love best, to ensure you will always be able to care for one another, what would you do?

The protagonist in the musical is, like Babbitt's novel, young Winne Foster (she's 11-years-old in the musical, 10 in the book) lives with her strict, but loving, grandmother in Treegap, New Hampshire. The year is 1893, and Winnie is still in mourning the death of her parents. One day, after her grandmother reminds her is unable to go to the fair - which has been heralded by a carnival barker clad in a canary yellow suit ("Where would you ever find a suit that color?" Nana asks. "And why would you buy it?") - because the year of mourning has not yet passed, Winnie runs away, in search of fun and adventure. Entering the woods near her home, she comes upon a young man named Jessie Tuck, who appears around 17 years of age or so, drinking from a spring. The two set off in search of excitement, which begins with a climb up a towering tree to see the world from its particularly expansive vantage point.

Discovering a kindred spirit in Winnie, Jessie takes her deeper into the woods (from whence her Nana claims she has heard a particularly haunting melody wafting along the breeze all of her life) to meet his family, all of whom seem skeptical of the presence of a strange girl in their midst, leading to their admission that the members of the Tuck family, thanks to the discovery of the magical spring in 1808, will live forever because of the immortality that comes from drinking the water. Jessie, who has told Winnie he is 17, is actually 102 years old and hopes to convince Winnie to make herself immortal by drinking a vial of water he gives her some six years hence when she turns 17, so that the pair may be married.

As might be expected, the course of true love does not run smooth and the situation in which young Winnie finds herself is soon upended, the promise of immortality proving far too potent for the nosy carnival barker in the yellow suit who tracks the pair back to the wood in order that he might profit from the spring's magical attributes.

BWW Review: Life Springs Eternal in Nashville Children's Theatre's TUCK EVERLASTING
Imari Thompson and Rebecca Keeshin

It is a fanciful tale that is related in Tuck Everlasting, but one that sends the imagination soaring, asking audiences to suspend disbelief and to consider, however gently or jarring (depending upon one's perspective), the possibility of a life never-ending. Shear and Federle's book for the musical is sweetly evocative, yet authentically honest - the stage may be bathed in a sentimental, nostalgic glow by Scott Leather's gorgeous lighting design amid the bucolic surroundings provided by Court Watson's stunning scenic design, but there remains a sense of realism despite the magical qualities therein. Tuck Everlasting is heartwarming, its characters relatable and accessible, yet it doesn't shy away from relating the shortcomings of a life lived beyond human expectation.

Winnie is persuaded to take time in making her choice of whether or not she will live forever, to allow her own life experiences to inform her decision, and she is safely returned to her grandmother's keeping even as the real world encroaches upon the mystical, magical world of the Tucks.

In a quietly stirring, yet thoroughly moving, moment that comes at the end of the play, we learn of Winnie's choice with a moment of grace and acceptance that will move you to tears. I must confess that thinking back on it, some 24 hours after watching it unfold, my heart is filled once more, my eyes clouded with tears, so wonderfully transformative was that moment. If I hadn't already appreciated the whole of Tuck Everlasting, that scene would be enough.

For young audiences, taking in the tale (however tall its fantasy might be) of Tuck Everlasting may enable them to consider their own choices, to draw upon the lessons learned from their families and friends, and to leave the relative safety of a darkened theater to return to their own lives. Admittedly, their lives may be fraught with the stresses and tensions of the modern day, but hopefully they are leavened by periods of exultant joy and unconditional love (if I can find myself transported by an engaging theatrical experience, I can certainly envision a world where everyone is loved completely and affirmatively).

BWW Review: Life Springs Eternal in Nashville Children's Theatre's TUCK EVERLASTING
Matthew Carlton and Jairus Maples

The Miller and Tysen score draws its inspiration from folk songs and Americana music, sounding as if it emerges from each of the changing time periods of the Tuck family's existence, giving the music a timeless appeal that enables the songs to wend their ways into the hearts of the audience, eliciting genuine responses and manipulating - but only in the very best way - an emotional response to the story playing out on the NCT stage.

Musical director David Weinstein and his band of musicians (Kelsi Fulton, Ben Andrews, Joshua Shepherd and Robby Shankel) perform the score beautiful, their professionalism and talent evident in every note.

Nolan's direction is confident, and the performances delivered by his cast are indicative of his care in crafting an altogether involving and heartfelt production. Rebecca Keeshin, who last season captivated audiences with her performance in Mockingbird, returns to the NCT stage to create another indelible character, playing Winnie Foster with unfettered honesty topped off by a sense of theatricality that delights and entertains.

Keeshin is paired throughout Winnie's consequential adventure in the wood with Imari Thompson, a Belmont University student who has made quite the impact in theatre both on-campus and off-, who is perfect as the sometimes wild and irresponsible Jessie Tuck, who nonetheless shows the wisdom of his own years in the life choices we become privy to in the course of the play.

Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva adds another starry credit to her already burgeoning resume, embodying all-encompassing Mother Love with wit and a graceful ease that is staggering in its impact as Mae Tuck, the matriarch of the star-crossed fictional family who become very real in Nolan's staging. Bakari J. King is ideally cast as her charming and jovial husband, who faces hard decisions every day of his long, long life, and as their elder son Miles, James Rudolph portrays a man who might indeed be broken by the vagaries of life, longing for a long-missing wife and son for whom his love remains constant.

Geoff Davin displays a certain oily, smarmy charm as The Man in the Yellow Suit (Winnie's Nana calls him a banana at one point), providing the much-needed conflict in a story that could be reduced to mere pablum without his unctuous presence to counter the fanciful nature of the plot. As aspiring deputy constable Hugo, Jairus Maples is convincingly ambitious and a little bit too sure of himself - in the way young men can be at times - but he remains grounded and likable in the process.

Nan Gurley, surely one of Nashville's theater's most renowned and revered actors, plays Winnie's Nana with her ever-present command, imbuing her character with the wealth of her own experience to bring the fictional woman to life with energy and commitment. Likewise, Matthew Carlton - another stalwart of the Nashville stage - plays Constable Joe with his trademark wit and self-assurance. Watching Gurley and Carlton onstage with a cast of younger actors who can only hope to achieve the pair's notoriety onstage and in the theater community, is in itself life-affirming and remindful of the depth of talent to be found in our city.

You owe it to yourself to let your imagination soar, to recall the loves of your own life, by experiencing the sweet nature of Tuck Everlasting. The show's short run - it closes October 7 - includes Friday evening performances, as well as weekend matinees, in addition to its regular run of weekday performances for area students.

Tuck Everlasting. Book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle. Music by Chris Miller. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Based on the novel Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Directed by Ernie Nolan. Musical direction by David Weinstein. Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. Through October 7. For details, go to www.nashvillect.org. Running time (1 hour, with no intermission).

photos by Michael Scott Evans

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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