Here’s the question. Given the chance, would you take the opportunity to live forever? And if you did, would it be a blessing or a curse?
In the challenging new grand scale production of the Broadway musical Tuck Everlasting, now playing at Valley Youth Theatre until April 21, that’s the issue that will soon face eleven-year-old Winnie Foster (Lainey Kenly). As Winnie tells us in the opening song Live Like This, it’s the first day of August 1893, and the fair is coming to town. It’s the day she’s been waiting for. A chance to break free from the confines of her living room and to finally enjoy herself.
Though the young girl’s widowed mother (Jessica Fink) tends to restrict her daughter’s desires to get out in the world ever since her husband died a year earlier, Winnie feels it’s time to break free. “I’ve got a really bad case of being good,” the girl sings and runs into the nearby Wood to get to the fair.
But it’s here where she meets Jesse Tuck (Riley Thornton) as he takes a sip from a spring at the base of a tree. Just when Winnie goes to take a sip for herself, Jesse stops her for reasons she’ll soon discover. Jesse and his family have all drank from the water, but that was years ago. Many years ago, and now they’re immortal. They’ll live forever. While appearing 17, Jesse is actually 102.
Based on the hugely popular children’s novel by Natalie Babbit, the musical opened on Broadway in April 2016 and closed the following month after 39 performances, just 11 more than the previews. But the abrupt closure had less to do with the quality of the show and more to do with the 2016 Broadway choices; there was so much for New York and its visiting tourists to see. Compared to the line-up along the Great White Way, the family-friendly musical about an eleven-year-old was not as splashy or as spectacular as many of the other marquee-value names. As a consequence, the curtain fell. Had it appeared at a different time, there’s a good chance it might have survived for a longer run.
But the absence of splash and spectacle is hardly a drawback when the show itself can be so much fun. Though there are no hits, the score is pleasant, sung with outstanding voices from a cast 23 strong, and energetic choreography from Nathalie Velasquez; the climactic ballet sequence is especially delightful. Without the need for spending the majority of its budget on clever special effects, a quality production based mostly on a young cast’s talent is what gives VYT the chance to present such an ambitious musical and to deliver it as well as the company does here.
Director Bobb Cooper’s knack for finding new talent in the valley is once again on display, beginning with Lainey Kenly as Winnie in her first VYT production. At just fourteen years, she convincingly plays an eleven-year-old while displaying a talent beyond her years, leading you to think that maybe the performer herself has drunk from that magic water.
Also making an impression is Hayden Skaggs as the show’s principal villain known simply as Man in the Yellow Suit, the carnival barker who intends to steal the water and get rich by selling it in bottles if only he could find its location. It’s true that other than a banana, no one looks good in yellow. As Winnie’s grandma (Taylor Underwood) asks, “Where would you find a suit that color?” adding, “And why would you buy it?”
Another casting plus is how well older members of the cast playing the adults actually appear as adults. In addition to Parker Gates, amusing as Constable Joe, Jessica Fink as mother, and Taylor Underwood as Nana, particularly convincing are Jessica Wastchak and Noah Delgardo as Mae and Angus Tuck.
Though there are no special effects in the grand tradition of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production or the spectacle of a Les Miserables, VYT employed one notable piece of equipment installed specifically for Tuck Everlasting; a revolving stage. A last-minute hitch caused an opening night cancellation, and a further problem caused some last minute production alterations, but in the true spirit of the-show-must-go-on, as testament to the professionalism of the young cast, all adjusted and adapted well to the problem to the point where, I suspect, several audience members never even realized there was an issue.
Often, a show this size and one that appears this skilled supported by the creative use of effective set design and lighting would be worthy of an end of season presentation at Herberger Theater Center, something that several of VYT’s recent productions have accomplished. But being a part of the company’s regular lineup in the smaller North First Street Theatre underlines further what a landmark season VYT has presented during its 30th anniversary. And there’s still more to come. The Arizona premiere of Disney’s new musical Freaky Friday is just around the corner.
Tuck Everlasting continues at Valley Youth Theatre on N. 1st Street in Phoenix until April 21
Pictures courtesy of Memories by Candace