KID VICTORY: UNCHARTED MUSICAL WATERS Late in his award-laden career composer John Kander, absent his career collaborator lyricist, Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, has teamed up with young playwright Greg Pierce to create a musical (or drama with song) that trods emotional terrain way beyond the likes of NEXT TO NORMAL, FUN HOME and DEAR EVAN HANSEN in KID VICTORY, now in its world premier at the Vineyard Theatre. The thirtysomething Pierce (born the same year, 1978, when Kander and Ebb’s seventh show THE ACT was on Broadway) and Kander had collaborated in last year’s well-received trio of connected musical one acts, THE LANDING, at the Vineyard, too.
Kander and Pierce’s new, intermission-less, 90-minute production shatters the boundaries for dramatizing adolescent psychology and family dysfunction. KID VICTORY opens with Luke, in his mid-latish teens, returning to his small-town Kansas home after having been kidnapped a year before. His mother, Eileen, a virulent evangelical Christian, wants to pretend everything is fine. His father, Joseph, protects Luke from Eileen’s overbearance. In a series of intercutting flashbacks, we learn that Luke, gay but closeted, had been seduced by an adult predator on an on-line boat building and sailing race game (Luke’s handle was Kid Victory).
Luke’s abductor, Michael, is a psycho who imprisons Luke, in drugged captivity, often handcuffed in the cellar, as both sex slave and creepily as son/ protégée/ little brother. Luke, midway through his captivity, escapes but, faced with the suffocating emotional nature of his home life, most curiously, returns to the “safe harbor” that Michael provides. On his final release from Michael’s prison (the shocking, causal event of which will not be revealed here), Luke’s only refuge back in his hometown is the friendship with Emily, a mother-earth, middle-aged mother who runs a florist gift shop where Luke gets a job.
Kander’s music seems out of place here. It works, but just barely, mostly because Pierce’s lyrics integrate with book (he wrote both) and because of an expert cast. Many of the 16 songs – about half it seems really sung-through interstitial snippets rather than full compositions - recall the plaintive solo numbers that Kander composed for Lisa Minnelli in THE RINK, THE ACT and FLORA THE RED MENACE. The orchestrations from the 10-piece, offstage orchestra don’t seem menacing enough. It’s odd because Kander knows dark themes - the Nazi underbelly of Weimer Germany (CABARET) and Prohibition-era, American criminal low-life (CHICAGO) - but the music for these seems more thematically appropriate than what he’s composed here.
KID VICTORY has two numbers performed by the 8-member ensemble: an opening, satirical “Lord Carry Me Home” that lampoons white, Christian fundamentalist culture in a bland (read white) Gospel style, and “You Are the Marble” in which the ensemble playing Bible-thumping townspeople tries to convert Luke back to normal.
Tony award winner Karen Ziemba, a veteran of countless musicals (including Kander and Ebb’s) and of defining voice in her solo “There Was a Boy”, handles the thankless role of Luke’s ignorant and unforgiving mother with the mindless aplomb of a God-fearing Church-lady. Big-voiced Emily Roscioli, who played Elphaba in WICKED for a long run, provides a little bit of comedic relief, but, more pointedly, a sympathetic shoulder in the inspirational “ People Like Us” Jeffrey Denman as the deranged Michael uses his steely tenor to sinister effect in Michaels’ desperate “What’s the Point”. Daniel Jenkins plays father Joseph with steady, quiet reserve, which finally gives way in the emotional conclusion.
Oddly, Luke, the lead character of this musical, brilliantly played by newcomer Brandon Flynn, is a song-less role. The part is Brandon’s professional stage debut. Keep an eye on him. He anchors KID VICTORY from beginning to end, where Luke begins painful reconciliation with past and the self.
To her credit, director Liesl Tommy confidently eschews anything flashy directorially, so the play remains story-driven. She knows it's all about what happened to Luke, and keeps us riveted to that.. Scenic designer Clint Ramos constructs an ingenious, fixed but remarkably versatile, set - a concrete basement (which suggests a standard, suburban split-level ranch house above) that accommodates variously Eileen and Joseph’s kitchen, Emily’s florist shop and, yes, Michael’s dungeon. (Luke's vinyl-covered sleeping mat is center stage for the whole play.)
Whether a fully realized musical or a provocative, book-heavy drama with song, KID VICTORY is unforgettable musical theatre: seldom (ever?) has a story like KID VICTORY been sung about before.