Life, like the theater, is ephemeral. But what would life be if it were unending?
According to Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s touching, thought-provoking adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 novel “Tuck Everlasting,” life's fleeting nature is what makes it worth living.
With a rousing score by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), “Tuck Everlasting” is not a perfect musical. Some elements don’t exactly work, and often it tries too hard to be all things from all musicals.
But the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s thrilling production, directed by Lynne Bordelon and Kristopher Shaw, is superior in almost every way.
It’s New Hampshire in the summer of 1893. Eleven-year-old Winnie (Bree Hollis), anxious for excitement, runs away from her overprotective mother (Chrissy Bowen) and free-spirited grandmother (Helen Blanke). Into the forest she goes where she meets the seemingly 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Aaron Richert) and soon discovers his secret.
Having consumed water from a magic spring, the Tuck family — Ma Mae (Melissa Hunter), Pa Angus (Patrick Hunter), and older brother Miles (Bryce Slocumb), along with Jesse — are immortal. They cannot age, nor can they die.
Love blooms between Winnie and Jesse, who proposes she wait until she, too, is 17 and drink the enchanted potion so they might live together for eternity. Will she or won’t she is the crux of the drama.
Complicating matters is a seedy carnival barker, called the Man in a Yellow Suit (Kristopher Shaw), who conspires to bottle the mystical fluid and thereby make a fortune. Not to worry. Dimwitted Constable Joe (Jimmy DeMontluzin) and his rookie deputy Hugo (Jonathan Damare) are in hot pursuit of the missing Winnie.
There is nothing like the joy of hearing a live orchestra, and renowned conductor Dennis G. Assaf, backed by splendid musical direction by Donna Clavijo, impresses as ever.
The production values at JPAS have never been more handsome or accomplished. Scenic designers Kristin Blatchord and Ron Oden — with their elegant, opaque sliding panels and detailed set pieces —know how to fill the massive space gorgeously. Rod Oden’s luxurious, textured lighting design and Kelsey Brehm’s elegant costumes couldn’t be more professional.
The beautiful and charismatic chorus highlights the show as they elegantly weave in and out of the story, dancing Bordelon’s challenging choreography with angelic grace.
Hollis is the star: Endearing, feisty and amazingly present, she’s the show’s greatest asset.
Richart, a senior at NOCCA with a most promising future in front of him, charms and sings terrifically as Jesse.
A beautiful chemistry flows between Melissa and Patrick Hunter as Ma and Pa Tuck. Her golden soprano thrills in “My Most Beautiful Day.” And his “The Wheel” vibrantly voices the point of the drama.
“Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of not being truly alive,” says Angus to our redheaded heroine. “You don’t need to live forever, you just need to live.”
As Miles, Slocumb, in another tough but tender role, entrances with the sorrowful, resonant “Time.”
Shaw pleasingly animates the devilish Man, but the character’s presence is forced and, like a guest who won’t leave the party, wears out his welcome.
Too often, however, the acting of this engaging cast suffers from “musical theater-style” line deliveries intent on EMPHASIZING EVERY WORD.
The evening ends with an Agnes de Mille-inspired ballet as we wordlessly witness Winnie’s transition through adolescence, marriage, motherhood and old age. The past, present and future fuse in a stirring climax that will leave you in tears.
The flaw of the production is the sound design, which is so over-amplified it’s like listening to music full-blast through a drive-in speaker. Not only annoying, the disembodied voices make it difficult to determine exactly who is speaking.
Nevertheless, this is a production well worth seeing.
Bring the family for this enthralling production and have an adult conversation with your kids. A holiday gem is waiting for you.
Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
WHEN: Dec. 8-17
WHERE: Jefferson Performing Arts Center
6400 Airline Drive, Metairie