Kid Victory: Which Prison is More Suffocating?
At first glance, the musical, Kid Victory (book and lyrics by Greg Pierce; music by John Kander), is not a story that begs to be made into a musical. Nothing of the plot screams, write a song about this. And maybe that’s why it packs the punch that it does. It is by no means perfect, and there are difficulties of flow throughout but it certainly is a captivating story. A teenage boy is abducted by an older male predator and held captive in his basement. Once he is able to get out, he than has to deal with his return to a world left behind. Much like the film, Room, the return is not the salvation one assumes. As skillfully directed by Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed), safety is filled with difficulties of the sort we can’t imagine. It turns out that the young man before the abduction wanted an escape from his safe but oppressive home life and suffocating social circle, something I would fathom that any teenager who doesn’t connect to their parents’ world and religion can understand. So the main question asked is which is the greater prison for our young man, the basement of his captor, or the restrictive religiosity of his home life? In a broader sense,the choice between embracing your sexuality or your family’s religiosity especially if they don’t line up, may be what Kid Victory is really about.
Luke, played with a deep understanding of the conflict that resides within by the immensely talented Brandon Flynn, is the teenage boy at the center of this nervy musical. Fascinatingly, he doesn’t sing one song or even one note throughout, although the musical does revolve around his tortured soul. It’s through his actions that we get a sense of his inner turmoil. Usually songs are the window into a character’s inner struggle in a musical. Through the unconventional act of singing do we get a glimpse into someone’s emotionality where as Luke is silent in that regard. He just wants to disappear. The set also reflects his conflicted soul, as all the scenes take place within the same small space. Forever are the chains and bare mattress of the jail cell basement in the center of the drama that circulates around Luke. This sometimes cluttered and clumsy arrangement, make for a disturbing window inside Luke’s jumbled brain. All we need to see is the light begin to steam in through the cold basement window and the furnace fire glow red, and we are automatically shoved brutally back into that locked basement room (scenic design: Clint Ramos; costumes: Jacob A. Climer; lighting: David Welner). Having seen the show previously in a much wider and larger space at Signature Theatre in DC, this design is affects one quite differently. Piling the spaces all on top of each other, rather than separating them creates a powerful environment that even when it feels too cramped, you feel trapped in that basement with Luke.
The show begins on the night that Luke’s mother, Eileen, the layered and pitch perfect Karen Ziemba (Contact at the Lincoln Center, which garnered her the Tony Award, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle award), has invited over her prayer circle to welcome home the son that had disappeared. It’s oppressive and forced upon an unwilling Luke, but his mother doesn’t want to hear any complaints from him. She wants him to bath in their faith and Christian love. It’s a very complex and difficult first glimpse into their home. His father, the quietly more thoughtful Joseph (Daniel Jenkins), tries valiantly to hear, but it comes down to the ever complex role of a parent; to whom does one side with, the wife/partner or the child. From that point onward, Luke attempts to readjust to his new/old circumstance while reliving through flash backs what lead up to the abduction and the confinement there after. We are privy to his time locked in the basement of his captor, Michael (intensely and expertly played by Jeffry Denman in the most difficult part balancing the ‘aggressive villain’ with the ‘tortured man-child’). Their relationship during and their courtship before is intensely revealing and unnerving, much like most of this raw difficult musical. Denman does a wonderful job of being both appealing and aggressively dreadful, while giving us just enough of his internal conflict, motivation, and pain that we can’t view him as solely ‘evil’.
On the more compassionate side, we have the bohemian and caring Emily, delicately played by the incredible Dee Roscioli, who has been given the difficult task of being both the lightness and playful compadre, while also maintaining a realness and connection to the difficult world that isn’t so easily navigated, even for an adult. She has to sell us on her quirky numbers, “Lawn” and “I’ll Marry The Man” that give us joy but don’t feel altogether wrong in a musical about such darkness. That balance works most of the time, although not all of the time. These songs are a fascinating difficult balance to the horrific Christian-centered pseudo-psychotherapeutic number “You Are The Marble” (speaking as a LCSW psychotherapist myself, I cringed) sung with deliberation by Gail (Ann Arvia), an overly helpful member of the family’s prayer circle. The best example of the tight rope act done here by Kandor and Pierce is the incredibly engaging and fun number, “What’s the Point?” There is such a sense of innocence, nervousness, and exploration all wrapped up in this song and tap dance number (yes, a tap dance number, deftly executed and sung by Blake Solfo and choreographed by Christopher Windom), that has such an uncomfortable realness to it, and then have it end on such a slap. It knocked the wind out of my sails.
Many of the other numbers vary in their successful integration with the story but all sound magnificent in structure and performance (sound design: Peter Hylenskl; music coordinator: John Monaco; music director: Jesse Kissel; orchestrations: Michael Starobin; music supervisor: David Loud). Some are awkward in tone and placement while most stay stuck in your head days after. The church-like hymns (“Lord, Carry Me Home” and “There Was a Boy”) carry the weigh and suppression of the Christianity that the parents and their church hold close while being perfectly entwined within their context and delivery. Those songs, and Suze’s (a lovely Laura Darrell) song, “Wait” are layered with pressure and guilt giving light to his family and inner circle really not listening nor open to seeing a different version of Luke other than the one they want to see. They are beautiful of sound but not of acceptance. This show has so many elements that parallel a coming-out story, although it is a lot more disturbing in Kid Victory than the regular complex world that a teen must face after coming out. In this story, the other side of coming-out isn’t liberating, it is being chained in a basement. It’s either the prison of family or a locked basement that has Luke freaking out. Kid Victory certainly rings true on a deeper level of the outsider suppressed, the desire to disappear, and the task of shaking off the world that suppresses.
It feels like a tale about the internal prisons we create out of necessity or fear, and the deep shame and trauma that comes from hiding one’s true self. And also about the battle to escape and survive. Which is the greater burden? To hide your true sexuality from your family because it goes against their religious beliefs and the structure of the very home that you grew up in? Or live with the resulting suffocation of your family trying to save you from your own sexuality? I was told a story once by a gay man who grew up in a very ultra-religious community in Texas, who felt so trapped within his family’s home that he ran away in the middle of the night, crawling out his bedroom window as the family slept, and escaped to San Francisco so he could finally live as his authentic self. This is a true story, and this feels to me the dilemma that Kid Victory is trying to tackle.
Now granted, I might be taking this a bit far, because the sexuality that I am referring to is very different from the situation represented in Kid Victory. In the show, it is a highly upsetting abduction and imprisonment, but it is also something that the teenage boy starts to see as the place he truly can be who he really is. There is a complex sense of freedom in that basement It is the one place where he feels his true self is being seen and understood. His home life with his parents feels like the true prison, one he is not so sure he can exist within either. Roscioli’s Emily, the free spirited alternative mother attempts to make him feel heard and understood, especially with her song of inclusion, “People Like Us”. But it’s really in the final song, sung by Luke’s father (Jenkins) that tries to bring some closure and acceptance to the boy’s sexuality from within the family unit. His true mother can’t accept him, whereas in the a moment when his father says that all is ok between them, regardless of what has happened and his sexuality, that a true sense of self and acceptance can begin. It’s a very real ending to a ‘coming-out’ story, when the young man finds out he doesn’t have to disappear entirely. That his father can see him clearly, or at least a bit more clear, and not turn away. It doesn’t entirely wrap things up and put a pretty bow on the top, but this show doesn’t ask for such neat and tidy conclusions. It gives you a messy and complex emotional resolution, which, in the Kid Victory world, is the true ending to the start of a young man’s acceptance of self.