Would you want to live forever as you are? Think about losing everyone you love over decades as well as hiding in order not to be feared and ostracized. (In an update, one might easily be locked in a Pentagon lab.) Now imagine being given that choice as a curious, imaginative, over-protected 11 year-old child. In 1893.
The Tuck Family – pa, Angus (the thoroughly appealing Michael Park), ma, Mae (Carolee Carmello whose presence is warm, but whose voice is abrasive), older son, Miles (Robert Lenzi), and younger son, Jesse (a lively, sympathetic Andrew Keenan-Bolger) were homesteading 100 years ago, when they all drank from an innocuous spring and became immortal. Miles and Jesse leave home on ten- year walkabouts, but Angus and Mae stick, wary and secluded. Still, the family remains close. Life goes on. And on. But this isn’t really about the Tucks.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Robert Lenzi, Carolee Carmello, Sarah Charles Lewis
Winnie Foster (newcomer, Sarah Charles Lewis), lives with her mother (a credible Valerie Wright) and grandmother (Pippa Pearthree with a surprisingly artificial old age accent), at the edge of woods which have been owned by her family for generations. Mrs. Foster remains in widow’s weeds after almost a year and confines her restless daughter to the house. When a fair comes to town, the usually obedient child can stand it no longer and runs off to have some fun.
Crossing the forest, Winnie encounters Jesse on his way home after a lengthy absence, and sees him drink from the spring. What could be more welcome than fresh water? She moves towards it. Jesse distracts her suggesting they climb an enormous tree – perspective, of course, affecting everything. Neither has ever really had a friend.
Sarah Charles Lewis, Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Set Designer Walt Spanger’s tree is comprised of what appear to be curved, undulating plywood boards hung with enormous clumps of like-colored leaves. It’s marvelous. The Foster’s Victorian door front, the Tuck’s Joseph-Cornell-meets-Louise-Nevelson home, and night stars are also terrific. Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner does an excellent job of adding magic to a production that unfortunately has little of it elsewhere.
Mae comes looking for her sons and finds Miles, whereupon Jesse drops from the tree. Before he can explain, Winnie follows. Anyone knowing about their existence is a threat. An untrustworthy child can only be more so. They throw a coat over her head and take her home. Angus is delighted they have a dinner guest. Mae is worried. Miles is furious. Jesse says “Can we keep her?”
Meanwhile, Constable Joe (Fred Applegate) and his nerdy son/deputy Hugo (Michael Wartella) search for Winnie. I don’t remember these characters from the book, but here they seem given too much stage time.
Carolee Carmello and Michael Park
Jesse passes for 17, but is actually 103. There are clues in the way the Tucks react and in what they say. The story comes out. Angus and Mae soften towards the girl. Miles reveals a secret. Still, prudence dictates that Winnie, promising never to tell, will be escorted home the next day. Not. Reveling in company with whom he can share adventures, Jesse takes Winnie to the fair.
Costume Designer Gregg Barnes manifests artistic, multi-pattern thespian apparel, period clothing for towns people just fanciful enough not to distract, and perfectly conceived attire for the “Man in the Yellow Suit.” The concept of dressing the show’s EVER-present, disconnected dancers (really, one begins to want to brush them away like mosquitoes) as wood nymphs or something from a Renaissance fair, however, is a real mistake. The visual is a constant disconnect.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Charles Lewis
A desire to win something for Winnie provokes Jesse into volunteering to have his age guessed by the yellow-clad owner of the fair. Winnie tries unsuccessfully to warn her friend. The Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrance Mann) had been sniffing around her house asking questions about a spring and an old family. He knows. The usually entertaining Mr. Mann appears trapped in a role he now regrets. There’s little amusement in his portrayal.
The “youngsters” run off too late, are followed and overheard. The Man in the Yellow Suit has ambitions of world dominion. He’ll blackmail Winnie’s mother in exchange for a deed to the woods. Mrs. Foster, Winnie, and the Tucks have major decisions to make. Winnie’s is whether to stay with the Tucks, secretly agree to join them later, or live her life. The Tucks must decide whether to finally pull up roots. Only two of these decisions depend on The Man in the Yellow Suit.
Sarah Charles Lewis makes a fine Winnie in her Broadway debut. The young actress embodies innocence, joy, spunk, confusion, and an accessibility that will serve her career.
Having just written a review of another new musical with lackluster songs, I regretfully feel this one is even less successful. Lyrics sound like heavy handed and/or cliché prose unwillingly submitting to music which itself arrives homogenized folk. Except for a ballet epilogue, there’s no fantasy, no purity, no poetry.
Being an otherwise tremendous fan of Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, I can’t imagine what he was thinking!
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Sarah Charles Lewis
Based on the book ‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt
Book by Claudia Shear & Tom Federle
Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
235 West 44th Street
Part Master Class, part jamboree and about as much fun as you can legally have at an evening of musical theater, this high test extravaganza shares, one gathers, but a smidgen of material jettisoned from what we now enjoy at the St. James Theater. Authors Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote 54 songs for Something Rotten!
What was eventually chosen is arguably not only swell but best serves the piece. Cleverness of songs currently relegated to the brothers’ trunk, is, however, formidable. Though some are “site” specific, others could successfully be performed by cabaret and concert singers. Many of us in the sold-out crowd at Feinstein’s/54Below tonight, as well as those exiting the Broadway production, would be surefire customers for a CD of alternates, replete with Karey’s entertaining, explanatory, anecdotal repartee.
For those of you unfamiliar with the rollicking show (see my review), it concerns brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom “struggling in the shadows of that well known rock star Lin-Manuel Miranda – I mean Shakespeare.” (Karey) Welcome to the Renaissance/With poets, painters, and bon vivants…the original cast company sings. “I remember hearing that song and thinking it doesn’t sound much like Sondheim, but so many have told us they can’t get it out of their heads.” Right on, Karey. Part of the audience mouth the lyrics, many clap in time.
For tonight’s presentation, the gracious and very funny Karey, also on piano, acts as raconteur, while Wayne plays piano and guitar. Both writers, by the way, can sing. Also on piano is Musical Director Mat Eisenstein who manages an entirely new, complex production for this jam-packed, two-off performance.
At the beginning, “we went trolling through Shakespeare and wrote songs but didn’t have a plot.” By 2010, wondering whether the concept was viable, Karey and Wayne approached Kevin McCollum (producer of Rent). When he responded positively, the Kirkpatricks brought in John O’Farrell as third collaborator, “an incredibly funny writer who also knew a lot about Shakespeare, which meant less reading for us!”
“Words You Never Heard,” which calls out some of the many Shakespeare introduced into the English language, was one of those songs initially pitched. Broadway’s current Bard, Christian Borle, who won both Drama Desk and Tony Awards for his inspired performance, takes the stage with character swagger. After all, “he put the I am in iambic pentameter.” When he doesn’t have a word, the Bard makes it up. Some of those originated are: pander, pageantry, obsequious, stealthily, bedazzled…Borle delivers a full-out, cocky turn, punctuated by provocative fanny wag. There’s not a flicker of unfamiliarity with new material.
Next, Karey tells us about the origin of the now blockbuster production number “A Musical.” The unheard-of genre is foretold to Nick Bottom by Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) so that the underdog can compete with Shakespeare. We hear an initial rendition, then the more up-tempo version requested by Director Casey Nicholaw.
Nostradamus (Spoken):It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops/And the plot is conveyed through song. Nick (Spoken): Through song? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Wait, so an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Well that is the (Singing) Stupidest thing that I have ever heard/You’re doing a play, got something to say/So you sing it?… The dizzying number is a mash-up of familiar musical tunes with lyrics tailored to the moment. At the St. James, it has all the glitz and glamour one could wish for. Our grinning audience bounces in their seats.
John Cariani (Nigel Bottom) offers the deep-sixed “Nigel’s Lament,” dear to the authors’ hearts because it’s about a writer who thinks he’s no good: It all comes down to this, I suck, I suck/I hold my quill, but it still runs amuck…The company provides a choral arrangement including sucky, sucky, suck, man, you suck (in grave-faced harmony). Cariani’s (Nigel’s) eyebrows are knit to a point in utter humiliation.
A rejected celebration of romantic poetry that features Nigel (Cariani) and love interest, Portia (Kate Reinders), arrives as a 1970s Elton-Johnish number: love, love, love, love, magical, mythical love…the pair sing with tangy period flavor and infectious pseudo-gravitas. The two voices are terrific together, expressions priceless.
David Hibbard (Standby for Brian D’Arcy James’s Nick Bottom and three other roles) performs “On the Top” (which became “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top”)…’om not gonna stop/until the Bottoms are on the top…An excellent vocalist, he also, as Nick, palpably vibrates with frustrated ambition.
Company member Marisha Wallace, with Cariani and Hibbard, sings a discarded “Right Hand Man,” as Nick’s wife Bea. Originally written as if ditsy support filled with obtuse insults, the number evolved into a demand for recognition of equal strength/ability. Wallace has a clarion voice we’re sure to hear in future outings and conveys the feckless woman exactly as the Kirkpatricks first envisioned her. The men are deadpan funny.
Heidi Blickenstaff (Bea) joins Cariani, Reinders and Hibbard for the very pretty “Lovely Love” in which we see all four actors occupy their roles. Blickenstaff closes her eyes and sighs into it, Cariani looks like a hopeful puppy, Reinders clasps hands at her breast overcome with pleasure, Hibbard expands with the possibility.
Karey and Wayne play the argumentative Nick and Nigel in an abandoned “The Trouble With You” whose consummate wordsmithing, like volleys of verse across a net, is an admired hoot. Nor, on the Broadway stage, did we see Nick and Nigel in the stocks among other prisoners, tap dancing (from the waist down) to “Desperate Times,” a metaphoric and currently politically apt complaint by those undeserved of such punishment.
We close with “Omlette” (the musical) and visions of dancing eggs. The Kirkpatricks wrote ten iterations of this! Sections from several range from rock n’ roll to the Andrews Sisters for inspiration. Alas, poor yolk, I know thee well…You make wine from sour grapes/ You got a flat pancake, hey, call it a crepe/When life gives you eggs, make an omelette…Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Omelette…Who needs sugarplums?!
A chorus of company members throw themselves into this evening with gleeful abandon (as well as professionalism), enjoying it almost as much as the audience, dropping not a single new stitch. These include: Matt Allen, Elizabeth Early, Linda Griffin, Courtney Ivantosch, Aaron Kaburick, Tari Kelly, Beth Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Angie Schworer
The subversively instructive shenanigans were joyous and brimming with talent.
April 25, 2016
254 West 54th Street