Arts and Culture

CTM's latest is 'everlasting' entertainment

Production asks: Do you want to live forever?

Everybody wants something in Children’s Theater of Madison’s regional premiere of “Tuck Everlasting” (playing through Feb. 26 in the Overture Center Playhouse), the musical based on Natalie Babbitt’s much-loved classic tween book.

Winnie Foster (Malea Niesen) the spirited 11-year-old heroine, wants excitement and adventure—or just to escape the endless enforced mourning that has turned every day in her house into dress-in-black day. 

The peripatetic Tuck family has their own personal laundry list, just as you’d expect from a fam who chugged from a magical spring and can now live forever: Momma Mae (Gail Becker) just wants a family reunion with her boys, while her husband, the wry Angus (Nathan Connor), just wants a nap.

Jesse (Patrick Sisson), the younger son, wants somebody to share his life, giving his boring eternity fresh eyes; older bro Miles (Nick Narcisi) could do with a do-over, so he could maybe get his wife and son back. 

Meanwhile, the snidely Man in the Yellow Suit (American Players Theatre vet James Ridge)—and that’s suit, not hat, by the way—wants to find the secret to immortality. So he can sell it, naturally. (Capitalism!)

That’s a lot of wants crashing into each other. Each has something that resonates with those of us camped in the audience, but it's the bigger, "Do-you-really-wanna-live forever?" question that hovers over the proceedings. Plenty of youth-focused books have tackled the pros and cons of the question—it’s even one of the threads that drives the “Twilight” trilogy, for Chrissakes—but few weigh it with the deft grace of Babbitt’s book. That grace is matched here by CTM’s cast, who, under Brian Cowing’s sure-handed direction, nails the show’s emotional notes as strongly as they do the musical ones.  

Niesen’s powerful as the wide-eyed Winnie. Her face transforms expressively as she channels hope, frustration, confusion and confidence over the course of the show’s two-plus hours. Her voice is another revelation. The show’s lyrics, penned by Nathan Tysen, favor $5 words and sung-through conversations over easy/catchy choruses, and Niesen navigates them like they're the world’s easiest hopscotch board. 

The mostly adult cast and ensemble largely match her. Ridge gleefully nibbles scenery as the villain of the piece. Becker and Connor have a great chemistry as a (really) old married couple, as do Niesen and Sisson. Narcisi absolutely owns “Time,” the show’s heartbreaking high point, as he sings about how his family abandoned him, spooked by the fact that his body stopped aging. 

Even the minor roles are handled deftly. As Winnie’s nana, Patricia Kugler Whitely is like a silver-haired stand-up comic. Sam Galvin’s awkward Hugo is charming and clever, and John Jajweski, playing Constable Joe, adds his usual rock-solid effort.     

The set is anchored by a pair of creative/architectural marvels. The first is hand-carved, 20-foot relief of a tree, a gorgeous work of art that backdrops the action like a decoration in an ornate Disney attraction. Given its stately and imposing grace, it’s a little surprising how little it actually figures into the production. Outside of an onstage spot to hide actors, it’s basically glorified—like, really, really glorified—window dressing.

The other is a rotating circular platform in the center of the stage that spins slowly with the onstage helping hands of the cast’s ensemble. It’s obviously designed as a reflective nod to the passage of time, but overt metaphors aside, it’s also used effectively to add motion and visual interest to what would otherwise be static scenes—like the scene where Angus takes Winnie fishing in a boat to remind her that the point is to live, not live forever.  

The final 10 minutes of this production are conducted in spoken/sung silence, and they’re nothing short of a marvel, a graceful and emotionally choreographed ode to the cyclical wonder of experiencing joy and loss. 

In other words, living.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for

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