"Tuck Everlasting"

Stephen Sandham  as Jesse Tuck and Calista Zajac as Winnie Foster

I used to have a crush on Jesse Tuck, the immortal boy in the novel “Tuck Everlasting.”

Not only that, but I loved the book so much that I wanted to be Winnie, the young protagonist from the story who longed for adventure and to see the world.

But then you grow up, read bigger books and it isn’t until you review “Tuck Everlasting” that your love for Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 book is reawakened.

French Creek Theatre’s production proves that a good story told with a lot of heart can relate to audiences of all ages and withstand the test of time.

Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s adapted musical follows 11-year-old Winnie, who, after the loss of her father, is confined to her household by her grieving mother. When she runs away to the woods behind her house, she stumbles upon the Tucks, a family of four that unknowingly drank from a magical spring in the wood and have lived forever. Winnie promises to keep the Tuck’s secret, which she may indulge in herself after deciding if eternal life is a blessing or curse.

“Tuck Everlasting” opened on Broadway in 2016 but closed after 39 performances. While critical reception was relatively positive, the intimate essence of “Tuck Everlasting” makes the show more impactful when performed in a smaller setting.

And such is French Creek Theatre’s stage. Director Fred Sternfeld can be highly commended on his ability to conduct a cast of 23 in a modest space where it never feels cramped, but rather intimate and personal.

Chris Miller’s music and Nathan Tysen’s lyrics often reflect on the circle of life, exploring the concepts of life and death—including the bitter-sweet reality of losing someone you love. This theme is also beautifully addressed in the show’s final, tear-jerking ballet number originally arranged by David Chase, choreographed by Jen Justice and softly lighted by Tobias Peltier.

Even Derek Green’s set design, a circular platform ringed with the age lines of a tree, reflects life and death. On either side of a central tree of life are wood planks spaced out in intervals to resemble a forest, on which, Green projects designs of the interior or exterior of a house—which are projected too high and faintly to be very effective.

With a swirl of country skirts designed by Kelly Miloro and traditional-sounding music under musical director David Williams and his eight-piece orchestra, the ensemble helps move props and set pieces on and off the stage in transitions that are practically unnoticeable.

Calista Zajac, who has a fantastic voice backed with equally strong acting, plays Winnie Foster. With spunk, a sense of adventure and just a touch of rebellion, Zajac perfectly embodies the character who I looked up to and longed to be when I was younger—and there’s sure to be little girls in the audience who are now doing the same.

Just as talented is Stephen Sandham as a youthful, fun and remarkably charming, outward-looking 17-year-old Jessie. He is super lovable and spry, despite being over 100 years old. Sandham’s athleticism is well displayed in his song “Top of the World,” in which he sings upside down, and in his wonderful dancing during the fair song, “Partner in Crime.”

Playing Jesse Tucker’s brother, Miles, is the stoic and refined Aidan McKeon. Having experienced more loss, Miles is quite solemn and wary of the magical water that he believes has changed his life for the worse.

Also affected by the water are mother Mae and father Angus, played by Amiee Collier and Daren Stahl, respectively. Both the talented Collier and Stahl are fantastically patronly to Winnie, and they each share a moving song about life’s important moments with the young girl in “My Most Beautiful Day” and “The Wheel.”

The magical water also catches the eye of The Man in the Yellow Suit, played by the properly unsettling Michael Dempsey, who wants to sell the eternal life-giving water for profit. He is balanced out by the comedic relief of Constable Joe, played by [CJN theater critic] Bob Abelman, and his young deputy, Hugo, played by Joshua McElroy.

I haven’t read “Tuck Everlasting” in years but seeing French Creek Theater’s production reminds me of that little girl who used to love Winnie and Jesse—and what better show to reflect on the ticking of time and the changes you undergo. “Tuck Everlasting” will resonate with any age, spark conversations about the majesty of life and is a fine example that well-told stories can touch our lives forever.

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