Renaissance High, UM grad stars in youthful lead role in ‘Tuck Everlasting’

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As Andrew Keenan-Bolger exited the stage door at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre after a matinee on a sunny day in May, he was surrounded by fans seeking autographs, photographs and handshakes.

Many of them were female and in their mid-teens.

“How old are you really?” one of them asked Keenan-Bolger.

“Old,” Keenan-Bolger said with a sly smile. “Really, really old.”

Keenan-Bolger — a product of the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood on Detroit’s east side — is 31 years old and a graduate of the University of Michigan. Because youthful looks run in this acting family, he is able to play the role of young Jesse Tuck, the male lead in the highly-praised musical “Tuck Everlasting.”

His character is 17 years old — with one caveat. Jesse’s been alive for 102 years, but will remain 17 forever because he and his family unknowingly drank water from a magic spring in the forest that will keep all of them immortal and just as they are forever.

It’s a mixed blessing, a combination of Ponce de Leon’s quest for the fountain of youth and Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” Based on a 1975 children’s book of the same title by Natalie Babbitt, “Tuck Everlasting” is a musical that adults and children can appreciate at different levels.

“I remember my mom reading this book to us when we were kids,” Keenan-Bolger said. “It’s got lessons about death and mortality. It’s pretty heavy for children’s literature. It’s a way to make sense of the cycle of life for children. It tells you to live your life to the fullest and embrace the time you have.”

During an interview in a nearby restaurant between shows, Keenan-Bolger explained how the generation gap in the audience plays out. He spoke specifically of the show’s touching finale, a 10-minute balletic pageant in which all characters but the Tucks dance and age through the full cycle of life.

“The matinee is always different,” he said. “The kids start clapping during the ballet. The adults at night would never do that. They wait until it ends. At the matinee, the kids are smiling and laughing, and the parents are crying. It’s not something that kids thoroughly understand.”

Keenan-Bolger has played Broadway roles since his childhood, when his mother — the late Susan Keenan — traveled with him as his chaperone. His career advanced notably in 2012 when he originated the character of “Crutchie” — a handicapped newsboy — for the first season of the long-running hit “Newsies.”

He and his two sisters — also actors based in New York — return to Detroit regularly to visit their grandmother, Lee Keenan, their father, Rory Bolger, and extended family.

Casey Nicholaw, director of the play, picked up on Keenan-Bolger’s familiarity with the story.

“Andrew’s energy and age seem timeless, which, of course, is perfect for a character who is living forever at the age of 17,” Nicholaw said. “Andrew can convey the feelings of someone who has years on him, but also hasn’t lost his love for life.”

“Tuck Everlasting” has earned critical acclaim and so has Keenan-Bolger.

The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Keenan-Bolger gives a terrific, ebullient performance as Jesse, whose delight in finding a friend he can confide in carries him away.”

The Chicago Tribune wrote: “Although Keenan-Bolger could dig to some deeper places and risk his considerable charm, you sure feel his character’s deep need for human interaction.”

That need becomes acute when Jesse meets Winnie Foster, played by Sarah Charles Lewis. She is an 11-year-old girl who has stomped away from her house after a tiff with her somber, widowed mother.

In the woods, she finds Jesse drinking from the spring. They like each other and he gives Winnie a bottle with some of the spring water.

“Hide it somewhere good and drink it when you’re 17,” he tells Winnie, “and come and find me.”

Things don’t go as planned, but the songs and dialogue evoke the bittersweet feeling that immortality might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. And that’s only one level of perception in this complex, but easy-to-follow plot.

Noting that many stage-door fans were girls who looked 13 to 15 years old, Keenan-Bolger said the show found “a new demo” that includes people seeing their first Broadway show. Some come multiple times.

He credited the “young love” story arc.

“For a teenage girl, there is something exciting about being 17 and falling in love,” he said. “It’s the romance and the coming of age.”

Keenan-Bolger’s two older sisters — Celia and Maggie — also perform on stage, as well as in television shows such as “The Good Wife.” Celia is a three-time Tony nominee. One of them was for her astounding performance two seasons ago as “Laura” in the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie.”

Her brother also has performed in “Mary Poppins,” “Seussical” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In his spare time, he is writing a series of children’s books called “Jack & Louisa,” dabbling in filmmaking (“Submissions Only,” on the web) and staying involved in politics.

For president, he said he supported Bernie Sanders, but will switch to Hillary Clinton when the time is right. Keenan-Bolger and his sisters tend to affiliate with liberal causes.

“Andrew is such an incredible actor,” Nicholaw said. “He always comes from a truthful, emotional place.”

Joe LaPointe is a Metro Detroit journalist and teacher.

About Andrew

Keenan-Bolger

Born: Detroit; grew up in the city’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood

Date of birth: May 16, 1985

High school: Renaissance

College: University of Michigan, Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, 2007

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