The Broadway Theatre Review: Kimberly Akimbo
My one and only wish was for the chance to see Kimberly Akimbo transfer to Broadway so I could have the opportunity to see it again. It has been about a year since I saw it when it premiered at the Atlantic Theater ing Chelsea, and since that moment, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind ever since. It left with me with such a strong feeling, mainly because it was so intensely simple and charming, yet so emotionally complex. It’s warm and impossibly touching, yet many of the characters are not. And even on my second viewing, this time at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, this fantastic new musical, maybe the best of the season, finds its way into our collective heart so beautifully but from paths unexpected. It drives itself forward, down such a winding road, finding a golden and unique place to call home, where the music and the songs find a way of elevating the story with glee while keeping its sense of self honest and truthful. Somehow, somewhere, deep 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 emotional clarity of life 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 integrity 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 fascinating show, by the wonderfully talented 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 through these high school hallways, with Kimberly, miraculously played by the incredibly convincing Victoria Clark (Broadway’s Gigi; The Light in the Piazza), chewing on her candied necklace, sitting in a state of perpetual anxiety. She’s feeling lost and alone, finding herself newly 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. Or feeling beautiful for a day. Maybe a treehouse is as good as it can get.
Kimberly Akimbo is the story of an outsider, 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 as Aaron, Nina White as Teresa, Olivia Elease Hardy as Delia, and Fernell Hogan II as Martin, who are all misplacing their affections on the wrong teenage 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, but somehow compellingly hopeful. The tale, driven by a magnificent score by Tesori, brings forth an idea of that exacting kind 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.
Clark has us believing in Kimberly, almost instantly, making us connect in such a strong way to her predicament, and really see her for the young girl she is inside. So perfectly does she achieve this, 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 miraculously warm and wonderful. Cooley, who was the recipient of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Lortel and Antonyo nominations for his performance in this part in last season’s Off-Broadway production of this musical, unpacks a strong connection to the phenomenal Clark, one that rings awkwardly true and gentle. It’s the key element that grounds 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), with orchestrations by John Clancy (Broadway’s 1776), additional orchestrations by Macy Schmidt (Broadway’s Tina), and music coordination by Antoine Silverman (Broadway’s Fun Home). The book and lyrics by the playwright, Lindsay-Abaire (Shrek), only deepen that authentic connection, scrabbling the names and letters around to give us something even more telling.
Director Jessica Stone (The Old Globe’s Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!), 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 with 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 Kimberly’s 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. They are self-absorbed, narcissistic, reckless, and sometimes cruel to the max, making the teenage girl sitting behind me gasp in astonishment more than once. But these two, wisely, are also not stereotypes, evil people without regard. They are complicated creations, trying to be good, but not finding a way through their own difficult lives and obsessions/addictions. Playing her perpetually late drunken father, Buddy, Steven Boyer (Broadway’s Hand to God; MCC’s Moscow x6) magically finds his way home, unwrapping a complicated man that is difficult to like or judge too harshly. His performance is inspiring, equal to 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 is at times uncomfortable to watch, but is also not completely deplorable. They’re a terrible twosome, but more sad than horrific. It’s a powerfully exciting balancing act these two actors do, finding a heart in their carelessness and disregard for Kimberly and each other, especially in the final act of dismissal when it comes to Kimberly’s bedroom reconfiguration. The sting of their actions registers strong and utterly 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 a higher engagement of love and care.
Then in comes the biggest child of them all, Kimberly’s mischievous (hilarious) Aunt Debra, played with a wild and wonderful abandonment by the magnificent Bonnie Milligan (Broadway’s Head Over Heels). She steals every 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 embodiment of this childish adult is as genius 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 Dear Evan Hansen), and the equally in-sync inventive scenic design by David Zinn (Broadway’s Spongebob Musical) that looks and works better on Broadway than it did off, along with the spot-on costuming by Sarah Laux (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit); engaging lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (Public’s cullud wattah); the solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…); and a telling and engaging video design Lucy MacKinnon (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill), Kimberly Akimbo does the remounting genre proud. She doesn’t, in the end, get the family she deserves, but she does get the connection she desires. It causes our hearts to swell under her and Seth’s smile, unearthing a true reason for being, while deepening an emotional interaction that we have held out for her, and for us. The actors elevate the overall design, and the piece finds unity with all involved. This is what is needed on Broadway. Not another rewired tootsie from the film vault, but a breath of brilliant fresh air that makes us believe once again in something better and more connected. I got my wish, and it wasn’t for that treehouse.
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