KIMBERLY AKIMBO: Real musical theatre at last
To a Broadway awash in juke-box musicals, musicals based on movies, bio-musicals, and over-produced revivals comes “Kimberly Akimbo” - distinctively original, disarmingly charming, and quirkily dramatic. Written in 2000 as a dark-comedy about a teenage girl who suffers from a rare disease that causes her to age rapidly by David Lindsay-Abaire (who went on to win Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Rabbit Hole’ in 2007), “Kimberley Akimbo” found its way, via regional California theater, to Off-Broadway with a critically successful run in 2003.
Twenty years later, “Kimberly Akimbo” emerges as a musical, with author Lindsay-Abaire writing a new book and providing lyrics for a wonderful score by Jeanine Tesori, one of the most versatile composers on Broadway (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”, “Shrek”, “Next to Normal”, and “Fun Home”, for which she won a Tony). The musical version premiered Off-Broadway in 2021 and swept all the major Off-Broadway awards for best musical.
The transfer to a larger venue on Broadway diminishes none of the musical’s core appeal of all its characters: a sympathetic (hardly pathetic despite her condition) title character brilliantly played by Victoria Clark (Tony Award for “Light in the Piazza”); Kimberly’s highly dysfunctional family; and, Kimberly’s eccentric high school friend.
It’s 1999 and Kimberly Levaco has just transferred into a new high school, her family inexplicably having quickly fled their previous New Jersey home. Besides being the most different looking in her class - she looks to be in her 70s - and the new kidin school, too, Kimberly struggles to adjust. Her home life is dismal. Pattie, her pregnant mother (with broken arms in casts and who thinks she’s dying), records videos for Kimberly’s unborn sibling. Her alcoholic father, Buddy, is as resentful of Kimberly’s affliction as her mother. Luckily, Kimberly becomes friends with the class weirdo, Seth, a poor kid, suffering from the loss of his mother and neglected by his father, whose hobby is creating anagrams from friends names (Akimbo is the last name of the anagram he devises from Kimberly’s full name.) Enter Kimberly’s Aunt Debra, who’s done jail time, which relates to the Levaco’s hasty move from their old house.
What’s so refreshing - delightful, really - is to experience the marriage of character and song, a feature missing from so many Broadway musicals. Tesori’s score is not the banal, 4-chord composition that mushes one number to the next. In “Kimberly Akimbo” the numbers are discernible songs which both explicate character and move plot. Among the 16 songs (three reprised appropriately) , there are half a dozen memorable tunes. Tesori’s musical idioms are versatile, incorporating many pop-music genres, many with appealing hooks. Highlights include “Better” when Kimberly’s weirdo aunt arrives on the scene. As portrayed by Bonnie Milligan, formidable in stage presence, voice and attitude (last seen on Broadway in “Head Over Heels”) she nearly steals the show. All of the small cast (9 including the title character) inhabit highly personalized characters in song. Mother Pattie’s “Happy for Her” is a lament for both daughter and self in country music style. The ironic “Happy for Here’ is father Buddy’s elegiac ballad about Kimberly’s fatal condition. A very appealing Justin Cooley shows impressive interpretive range from the witty ensemble piece “Anagram” to the bittersweet solo “Good Kid”.
Jessica Stone’s direction is deft, particularly in the musical number “How To Wash A Check”, in which Aunt Debra instructs Kimberly and her classmates in a criminal scheme to finance the school’s theater production and Kimberly’s personal dream to travel, i.e. get away. The most cleverly staged song, and most melodically complicated, is “The Invisible Turn”, wherein, at a family dinner with Aunt Debra, secrets tumble out.
Choreography by Danny Mefford moves action along without being obvious (even when the cast is dancing on ice skates). The nine-piece band sits on a platform above the action. Uncluttered orchestrations make lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire perfectly clear. Sarah Laux’s costumes are working class ordinary. David Zinn’s set design are adaptable sliding partitions and drops to create a skating rink where kids hang out, school corridors, Kimberly’s modest house and the basement where Debra schemes. Nothing flashy is deserved or desired; “Kimberly Akimbo” gets back to musical theater basics - story, song and character.
Kimberly would be a plum role for any actor, and the sixty-something Victoria Clark masters it perfectly, with vocal intonations and body movement of a teenager. Most amazingly, Clark navigates a character that harbors fundamental contradictions - a teenager’s youthful dreams and the reality of a not-too-distant death. The last three songs of the show dramatize Kimberly’s release from her family and imagine the completion of her personal journey. The show concludes with a happy tune called “Great Adventure’, accompanied by an unexpected video montage, which together transports the audience to a place that only original theater can create. The ending is at once both a celebration of life and an ode to mortality. “Kimberly Akimbo” is just wonderful.