'Tuck Everlasting' Finds Heart and Home at Sheffield’s French Creek Theatre

Life and its fleeting nature are beautiful, intricate gifts, and it can be difficult to articulate that message in a way that doesn’t result in blatantly religious implications or condescension.

The story of Tuck Everlasting is a pleasant departure of such thought, and the crew of the picturesque French Creek Theatre has injected this story with the kind of energy and respect it deserves. Its exuberant, earnest execution encourages its audience to look at life more positively, something that branches out beyond escapism to provide its audience with something truly wonderful.

The play begins with 11-year-old Winnie Foster, (Calista Zajac), a well-behaved girl who, after losing her father, craves adventure and rebellion away from her grieving mother (the lovely Katie Gibson) and grandmother (Jeanne Task). In her first bit of escape by going into the forbidden woods within their property, she runs into a mysterious man, Jesse Tuck (Stephen Sandham).

Though appearing only a few years older, Winnie quickly discovers Jesse and his family are frozen in time as the flowing spring near the Fosters’ woods is capable of granting immortality.

When given the chance to drink from the spring, Winnie must confront her own battle of living forever without consequence or simply living life to the fullest. Meanwhile, Winnie and Jesse find themselves steering clear of the equally mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Michael Dempsey), who may be catching onto the Tuck family’s activities.

Much like the Tuck family, this story always finds a way to stick around, from its initial novel in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt to two different film adaptations— one by none other than Disney. After a run on Broadway in this adaptation by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, this modern fable has found a more appropriate medium to showcase its emotional peaks and somber, thoughtful valleys, without being overly hokey or Hallmark-esque in its presentation. This revelation is made more apparent by the fine folks at French Creek.

Director Fred Sternfeld has stated he feels a personal connection to Tuck, and the attention to detail shows. A talented crew was assembled to make this production about the cycle of life feel larger than life, such as choreographer Jen Justice juggling a massive ensemble on stage for complex dance routines and lovely bits of piano-centric ambiance by music director David A. Williams.

The set design by Derek Green, though aesthetically simplistic, shows its complexities with a multi-purpose archway that doubles as a jungle gym-like structure in a scene between Winnie and Jesse. Having the show share estate with the Lorain County Nature Center aids in the aesthetic of walking onto the woodland set, accompanied by ambient nature sounds. The stage is complemented with rotating collections of furniture and crafty house-made set pieces by prop master Paul Melnykowski, especially during the carnival scenes.

Zajac, at only 14 years of age, has already shown herself to be a powerful performer with a tremendous stage presence. Her voice in numbers like “Good Girl Winnie Foster” and with Daren Stahl (as Angus, the Tuck patriarch) in “The Wheel” is astounding, ringing through the intimate space and into everyone’s hearts.

Sandham also shows incredible poise, lighting up the room when he arrives with a boyish appearance and charm. His vocal harmonization with Zajac and Aidan McKeon, playing Jesse’s brother Miles, is second to none. Sandham and McKeon share a great deal of playful banter that adds some levity to more emotional moments.

The aforementioned Stahl and Amiee Collier, playing Angus’ wife Mae, are also a real treat to watch on stage together. While they each possess incredible voices — Collier’s delivery in “My Most Beautiful Day” may very well be the brightest moment of the first act — and each work well with the rest of the ensemble, it is their scenes together that reinforces the production’s genuine charisma.

In contrast, Dempsey’s husky singing voice and smarmy cadence oozes with a confidence that often steals the spotlight, especially in numbers like “Everything’s Golden.” It’s not hard to tell from his off-hand banter that he’s having a lot of fun with the role.

In his sixth production by Sternfeld, Bob Abelman supplies a dry wit in his paring with Joshua McElroy as the buddy cop duo of Constable Joe and Hugo, as they aimlessly search for Winnie. The two share some great comedic timing, and work off each other fairly well in numbers like “You Can’t Trust a Man.”

We would be remiss not to acknowledge the hard work of the ensemble, who, aside from moving set pieces swiftly, fill the stage in many moments as dancers and auxiliary characters, such as Abelman’s wife Judy—who doubles as an assistant stage manager— Julia Green, who plays Winnie at an older age, Christopher Michael, who possesses a killer smile, and the absolutely adorable Lyric Zeager, who plays the other child characters.

Tuck has that kind of child-like wonder that can’t help but make its audience feel the joy and pain of its characters through an emotional ride that quite literally comes full circle with a beautifully executed epilogue. For those in Cleveland looking for a heart-warming theater experience, it’s well worth the drive to Sheffield for a show that demonstrates the the value of stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

WHAT: Tuck Everlasting
WHERE & WHEN: Through Aug. 4 at French Creek Theatre , 4530 Colorado Ave, Sheffield Village
CONTACT: 440.949.5200; metroparks.cc/theatre
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