The In-Person Off-Broadway Experience: Atlantic Theater’s Kimberly Akimbo
The week that I had in New York City earlier this month, before all the “abundence of caution” notices sadly were being posted, seemed to revolve all around Stephen Sondheim, who, as I stated in an earlier review of Mrs. Doubtfire The Musical, always believed that there had to be a good reason for a story to become a musical. “You can put songs in any story, but what you have to look for is, why are songs necessary to this story? If it’s unnecessary, then the show generally turns out to be not very good.” This unnecessary concept is not the case with Atlantic Theater Company‘s new musical, Kimberly Akimbo, where the music and the songs find a way of elevating the story with glee. Here, in this completely captivating tale of a 16-year-old girl who is genetically hyper-aging her way through high school and life, the musicality of the piece delivers the ‘necessary’ in abundance, leaving us thrilled and cheering by the time this show neatly wraps itself up. Not in a particularly traditional way, that is, but with an honesty and intregity that is overwhelmingly wonderful and fulfilling.
I never did see the 2003 play, “Kimberly Akimbo” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole; Good People) when it premiered Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center Stage 1, long before it was enhanced and made into this wonderfully fascinating show, with the solid help of composer Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change). Credited with creating the book and lyrics for the musical adaptation of his own play, Lindsay-Abaire has found his way beautifully through these high school hallways, with Kimberly, miraculously played by Victoria Clark (Broadway’s Gigi; The Light in the Piazza), chewing on her candied necklace. Sitting in a state of perpetual anxiety, feeling lost and alone, she finds herself surrounded by kids looking for love in all the wrong New Jersey places and faces, but Kimberly, you can tell, is even more pessimistic. Love, she seems to believe, is too much to wish for. Maybe a treehouse is as good as it can get.
It’s a story of an outsider, but not only at high school, but maybe from almost every aspect of her life. She’s not exactly disliked by the mismatched kids in her school, played solidly by this wonderfully eclectic foursome: Michael Iskander (Aaron), Nina White (Teresa), Olivia Elease Hardy (Delia) and Fernell Hogan II (Martin), who are all misplacing their affections on the wrong soul. It’s telling in a way, that this is Kimberley Akimbo‘s backup singer chorus, a gaggle of hopeless teenage lovers pining for the one who loves another, who loves another, who loves another, all destined to be let down by love. The tale, driven by a magnificent score by Tesori, brings forth an idea of hope, love, and attachment that sings and radiates upward, giving us a glimmer of something more sweet and tender than anything as of late.
She has us believing in Kimberly, connecting in such a strong way to her perdicament, that when the young tuba-playing Seth, beautifully portrayed by newcomer Justin Cooley, sits down beside her, we know that he is really seeing the girl that exists inside, just like we are, and the feeling is as warm and wonderful as you can imagine. Clark and Cooley’s performance rings awkwardly true and gentle, grounding this tale effortlessly in the wonderfully telling songs that are sung by them and those around her, thanks to some solid work by music director Chris Fenwick (Public’s Soft Power). The book and lyrics by the playwright, Lindsay-Abaire (Shrek), only deepen that connection, scrabbling the names and letters around to give us something even more telling; a solidly clever and convincing scenario that we can all get behind.
Director Jessica Stone, who recently directed an all male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for the Williamstown Theater Festival. draws us inside the teen world of Kimberly, unearthing the reality of a 16-year-old girl who is living in a body that is aging four or five times faster than any of the other kids around her. Leave it to Clark to find the physical and emotional essence of Kimberly in every move and moment, delicately giving us a real teenage girl, slump and insecurities et al., without ever losing touch to the reality of her predicament and surroundings. It’s an impeccable performance, one that shouldn’t be missed, not because it is by any means showy or big, but for the simple astonishing way she inhabits her own older body while giving us a sixteen-year-old we can most wonderfully attach to.
The first act is full of charm , even as the swear jar overflows with cash, thanks in particular to the fine performances of Mom and Dad. They are not something out of any traditional or semi-traditional musical storytelling ideal. Her parents are in a way the exact opposite of what we want for her; self-absorbed, narcissistic, reckless, and sometimes cruel. But they are also not stereotypes, evil people with out regard. They are complicated creations, trying to be good, but not finding a way through their own difficult lives and obsessions/addictions. Playing her perpetucally late drunken father, Buddy, Steven Boyer (Broadway’s Hand to God; MCC’s Moscow x6) finds his way home, unwrapping a complicated man that is difficult to like or judge too harshly. His performance is inspiring, equalled by the talented Alli Mauzey (Encores’ The Golden Apple) and her impressive creation of Patti, Kimberly’s pregnant mother. She is quite the invention, a distracted self-absorbed woman who needs Kimberly to maternally take care of her in a manner that she doesn’t connect to, but is also not completely disagreeable. They’re a terrible twosome, but more sad than horrific. It’s a powerfully exciting balancing act these two do, finding a heart in their carelessness and dissregard for Kimberly and each other, especially when it comes to Kimberly’s bedroom reconfigulation. The sting of their actions register strong and sincerely heartbreaking, but in many ways we can’t hate them like we might want to, as they seem like children themselves, younger than the daughter that stands before them asking for them to step up to the plate and play the game of parenting with more love and care.
And then in comes the biggest child of them all, Kimberly’s mischievous Aunt Debra, played with a wild and wonderful abandonment by the magnificent Bonnie Milligan (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) who steals the scene without breaking a sweat. Continually on-the-lam, breaking every rule she comes up against with an ease that is truly alarming, Milligan’s emodiment of this childish adult is as genious as her make-money-quick scheme is not. Her deconstruction and incorporation of the four sexually-frustrated chorus members is utterly brilliant and casually astounding to watch. Through the connected and in-tune choreography of Danny Mefford (Broadway’s Fun Home), and the equally in-sync inventive scenic design by David Zinn (broadway’s Spongebob Musical); spot-on costume design by Sarah laux (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit); engaging lighting design by Lap Chi Chu (MTC’s Morning Sun); a solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…); and a telling projection design Lucy MacKinnon (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill), Kimberly Akimbo does the genre proud. She doesn’t, in the end, get the family she deserves, but she does get the connection she desires. It causes our heart to swell under her and Seth’s smile, unearthing a true reason for being, while deepens an emotional interaction that could use some internal exploration. The actors elevate the overall design, and the piece finds unity with all involved. This is what needs to come to Broadway. Not another tootsie from the film vault. A breath of brilliant fresh air during a(nother) difficult year. So I’m holding onto my optimism. Hoping that we get through all of this trouble and temporary shutdowns, and embracing the energy that this show gave me for that future outcome.