The age of a show’s protagonist often provides a clue to the age of the audience the show is pitched to: Patrick in American Psycho is 27; Jenna in Waitress is “in her thirties”; the character Frank Langella plays in The Father is 80 going on dead. So perhaps we should be grateful that Winnie, the heroine of the 1975 “young adult” fantasy novel Tuck Everlasting, has been bumped up from 10 to 11 for the musical adaptation that just opened on Broadway: She is that much more bearable. But whether the work of so many talented people in effecting the adaptation has added anything of value beyond that one year is another matter; this is, almost until the end, a ruthlessly by-the-book treatment of a high-concept, low-wattage fairy tale. Those nostalgic for their seventh-grade enthusiasms may love it; I found it to be a musical for the child in someone else.
To begin with, that novel, by Natalie Babbitt, is a poor cousin to the classic “magic” fictions of Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, and Roald Dahl. Instead of dusting its tale with sprightly wit, Babbitt nearly drowns it in sticky, honeyed prose. That’s a shame, because the tale itself, set in the late 1800s, is promising enough: Winnie, on the lam from her stultifying home, discovers a family, the Tucks, who many decades earlier drank from a hidden forest spring that gave them eternal life. This blessing turned out to be, in part, a curse, exempting them from the natural cycle of decay but also from the recompense of joy. As a result, the permanently fortyish parents, Mae and Angus, are stuck in an affectionate but endless marital rut; he doesn’t just snore but snores forever. Older son Miles, stuck at 21, has married a civilian, not understanding that he would thereby live to see his wife and child die. And younger son Jesse, at 17, despairs of finding romantic companionship at all. Enter Winnie at 10 — er, 11.
Babbitt resorts to a lot of odd plotting to bring this Möbius strip of a story to some sort of climax and resolution; there’s a creepy character — the Man in the Yellow Suit — who hopes to profit from the Tucks’ secret, as well as a murder and a belabored jailbreak. The musical’s book, by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, unkinks some of those knots and adds plenty of stageable business besides. The Man in the Yellow Suit, for instance, is now a carny instead of a lone wolf, so that Winnie and Jesse can have a night of fun and the show can have a (wan) Act One production number. But the more Shear and Federle clarify the material the more ordinary and threadbare it seems, a problem that Casey Nicholaw’s staging (he is both director and choreographer) mostly exacerbates in its dogged adherence to the conventions of Broadway storytelling. Is there an opening number that introduces all of the main characters as well as the theme? Check: “Live Like This.” Is there a second number that establishes the heroine’s dream and dilemma? Check: “Good Girl Winnie Foster.” Is there a third number that expands the focus and brings on the antagonist? Check: “Join the Parade.” And though each song, by the young team of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, does its job exactly to specifications — and with nary an off-rhyme the whole evening — there is something more dutiful than passionate about Tuck Everlasting.
The homogenization feels deliberate, as if bits of Wicked, Brigadoon, and Carousel had been dumped into a blender with skim milk to produce a smoothie that’s way too thin. A better recipe might have begun by studying the musicalization (rather than just the success) of Dahl’s Matilda to see how a family musical can aim higher than its demographic. Matilda is scary and emotionally complex, replete with physical menace and spiritual hunger. Its terrific special effects prime the audience, young and old, for both. Tuck Everlasting, overly solicitous of the young ones’ sensitivities, only dares approach such ideas in quotation marks. The concept of mortality is scrubbed so vigorously of sad connotations that it winds up smelling like fresh laundry. Other than a few twinkle lights, the only special effect is … a frog. Even the murder is fudged; the victim isn’t deliberately shot as in the book but dies accidentally when whacked by a rifle. Beyond that, this is one of the most sexless musicals ever put on Broadway. It will run forever in middle schools.
True, they won’t have professional performers: no Carolee Carmello as Mae or Terrence Mann as the Man in the Yellow Coat or Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jesse, working his urchin charm for all it’s worth. They won’t have a pair of hams like Fred Applegate and Matthew Wartella, as Constable Joe and his shy assistant, to pull off the comic-relief duet “You Can’t Trust a Man.” (“A man who is fondest / of suits that are jaundiced / puts the yolk on him and the joke on you.”) Nor despite their stock of 11-year-olds will middle schools have a professional child like Sarah Charles Lewis to play Winnie, a job she carries off with Annie-like aplomb. But perhaps in the gymnacafetorium the material will seem less mismatched to its environment. A Broadway proscenium is an imposing frame. As it is, the company spends most of the show fiercely working to keep your eyeballs in place. It’s exhausting in the way a long bus ride is.
And then, suddenly, just when you think the story is making a final descent toward its predictable landing, Nicholaw for the first time takes a detour. A lovely ten-minute ballet, naturally called “Everlasting,” replaces the traditional dénouement with a danced fast-forward through 70 years of Winnie’s life. All the scary, complicated emotion so assiduously shooed away for the previous two hours now takes the stage; death, formerly a bubble, becomes an aching physical reality. A repeated one, too: Nicholaw’s heartbreaking gesture for the loss of a loved one inevitably becomes a refrain. Alas, by the time he pulls Agnes de Mille out of his hat, it’s too late. The show has long since succumbed, not to its humanity but to a lack of it.
Tuck Everlasting is at the Broadhurst Theatre.