Kimberly Akimbo, one of the unlikeliest, most exciting and ever moving musicals to hit New York in years, opens on Broadway tonight and has lost none of its immense charm since its Off Broadway debut was the year it won just about every critics award. which had to be swept .
Opening tonight at the Booth Theater with the original Off Broadway cast intact, the wonderful Victoria Clark leading the very fine ensemble, Kimberly Akimbo remains a stunner, a cunning, quirky, eccentric work of art transformed into a crowd pleaser by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s captivating book and lyrics, Jeanine Tesori’s delightful music which, like Kimberly Akimbo himself, works its way into your heart with a cheerfulness that both hides and ultimately amplifies its serious ambitions. Add to that a winning group of singing actors, from young newcomers to stage veterans, who work together with an ease and chemistry that is apparent from the start and only gets stronger to an emotional and deeply satisfying ending.
Directed by Jessica Stone and choreographed by Danny Mefford, Kimberly Akimbo tells the story of young Kimberly Levaco, a 16-year-old high school student who, due to a rare genetic aging disorder, is less like her classmates and more like their grandmothers. Played by 60-year-old Clark (a Tony winner in 2005 for The light on the Piazza), this Kimberly is a remarkable stage creation, emotionally believable as an adolescent (and without the sticky affections commonly used by adults playing children), but with the tense optimism and obvious concern of one who knows her time will be short. , an acquaintance etched into every line of Clark’s face.
Following the blueprint of his earlier non-musical play of the same name, Kimberly Akimbo – an explanation of the title soon – follows both the family and school life of his heroine. In her dysfunctional home, Kimberly spoons cereal to her self-obsessed hypochondriac mother Pattie (a wonderfully funny Allie Mauzey), whose arms are in plaster from a recent—and, it’s suspected, possibly unnecessary—carpal tunnel surgery. Oh, and Patti is very, very pregnant, a happy circumstance that everyone, especially Kimberly, recognizes for what it is: “I want this one to be perfect,” Patti blurts out with barely a second thought.
Kimberly’s father Buddy (Steven Boyer, Mauzey laughs for laughter and cruelty for cruelty) is an alcoholic who seems unable to keep even the easiest promise to the woman he once loved and the daughter he so clearly does. We first meet Buddy when he arrives hours late to pick up Kimberly from her lonely visit to the local ice rink.
Moments later, we meet Kimberly’s Aunt Debra (a tour de force Bonnie Milligan), whose life of petty (and not so minor) crime leaves her homeless and crouched in the Levaco basement, where she hatches her next bird (something with strange chemicals, a stolen letterbox and stolen checks – everything will become clear soon enough).
Kimberly’s medical diagnosis is both a literal condition and a metaphor for all children who must grow up too quickly to care for the damaged adults in their lives. Amazingly, that dual function doesn’t play nearly as contrived as the description suggests.
At school, Kimberly is an outcast to say the least, not so much an object of ridicule or bullying as of curiosity. Most of the time, though, she’s just invisible. We meet four of her classmates at that ice rink (played so well by Nina White, Michael Iskander, Olivia Elease Hardy and Fernell Hogan), themselves an uncool quartet of quirks and secret desires. The group’s sole purpose – well, aside from the obviously doomed aspirations of romance each has for one of the others – is to raise enough money to buy glitzy costumes for the Dream women song they want to do in a school musical competition. Aunt Debra feels some easy choices.
And finally, Seth (young Justin Cooley in remarkable New York debut), a tuba-playing, Elf-speaking nerd who makes even the other outcasts seem like kings and queens of the ball. Seth, whose obsession with anagrams turns Kimberly Levaco into Cleverly Akimbo, is a motherless and, by all means, fatherless child whose occasional verbal callousness – “You know, when I first saw you in the cafeteria, I thought you were a new lunch lady. Isn’t that funny?” – can’t hide a sweet innocence that makes him nervously ask Kimberly to participate in a science project: each couple must choose an illness and present a class report. Before she has time to think it over, Kimberly agrees with Seth’s idea: they will give a presentation to the class about Kimberly’s rare genetic disorder.
That storyline plays out – with results that are humorous, heartbreaking and life-changing for everyone involved – alongside a funny but slightly more tense plot: Aunt Debra recruits Kimberly and her five new friends in a check-washing scheme, bank fraud, a plan that takes full advantage of her niece’s ability to seem like a sweet old lady.
Any disbelief we might have at the ease with which these children lead criminal lives is well worth watching it all happen. Just listen to the lyrics to “Better”, in which Debra shares her philosophy of life with the impressionable nerds. Set to the sort of deafening powerhouse melody that makes you think you’re headed for a quintessential showtune inspirational interlude, the beautiful Milligan sings a great dark comedic number. Watch a typical autobiographical verse:
I met a lady… with dementia.
She was old.
She was sweet.
She was legally blind. She needed a roommate. I needed a room.
I had no job
she was crazy.
You should have seen the rings she was wearing.
Let me underline
that they were beautiful.
She gave me all the rings she was wearing. Yes, she thought I was her daughter, but they made my pussy life…better
Her eager, newly recruited gang eats it up. We also. Milligan is irresistible.
“Better” is just one of the musical highlights of the charming score. Tesori (corresponding to the work she did on the astute Caroline, or change), and they Shrek the musical lyricist Lindsay-Abaire stuff Kimberly Akimbo with one showstopper after another, most in equal parts laughably funny and tear-jerkingly poignant. To pick a few: Kimberly’s increasingly extravagant (and deliberately impossible) list of improbable requests for the Make-A-Wish Foundation (“Make a Wish”); her early duet with Seth (“Anagram”) which refers to feelings, which they are not quite sure where to put (“I like the way you see the world,” she catches herself meeting Seth. thinks. “I like your point of view. A little cunning. A little weird. a bit crooked“); and there’s the excellent “The Inevitable Turn,” in which a seemingly pleasant (and rare) family dinner turns sour (“Everything is going well, then it changes so fast. A look, a joke, a magic trick from the past, that will burn. Pass the salt, sling the mud. Cut the flesh, drain the blood. Take the turn…)
The final song is performed at a dining table that slowly revolves as the family meal turns into chaos and revelation, a fine example of both Stone’s clever directing and David Zinn’s versatile home-school skating rink sets. The setting of the late 1990s is never overemphasized, but Sarah Laux’s costume design is perfect without resorting to cartoons, never more so than with Kimberly’s wardrobe, a teenage casual wear that Clark so comfortably inhabits. There is a brief moment where we see Kimberly in a different light, and it draws the audience’s breath.
As the musical reaches its grim, breathtaking, and life-affirming – but not quite-how-you-think-conclusion, Kimberly Akimbo graces us with a series of images that we will not soon forget (the contributions of the video projections of Lucy Mackinnon, the lighting of Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and the impeccable sound design of Kai Harada cannot be overstated). Those final moments follow the unspoken promises made during production that Kimberly Akimbo and it’s all a bit strange, slightly deviant characters will get all the compassion and respect and clear investigation they deserve. Promises kept. Kimberly Akimbo is a triumph.