The Intimate ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ is the Best New Broadway Musical in Years
Every once in a while, as a critic, you get to witness all the stars align–writing, acting, directing, and design–to create an absolutely flawless musical. I am very happy to report that Kimberly Akimbo is one of those, a perfect production of a perfect musical.
Kimberly Akimbo, which premiered last season at the Atlantic Theater Company, was written by David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics, based on his play) and Jeanine Tesori (music). It tells the story of Kimberly Levaco (Victoria Clark), a fifteen-going-on-sixteen-year-old girl with a rare genetic disorder that causes her to age at four to five times the normal rate, and leaves her with a life expectancy of sixteen.
Clark, who is in her sixties, as Kim, lends visual realism to the role. Her sure-to-be-legendary performance mixes youthful enthusiasm with Kim’s forced maturity beyond her years, to create something extraordinary.
The musical is populated by a group of eccentrics. Kim’s family consists of her hypochondriac, pregnant mother (Alli Mauzey), her alcoholic father (Steven Boyer), and her aunt with criminal schemes (Bonnie Milligan). At school, she develops a friendship/relationship with the superbly nerdy, tuba-touting, anagram-obsessed Seth Weetis (Justin Cooley). The cast is rounded out by a quartet of romantically confused show choir kids, Delia (Olivia Elease Hardy), Martin (Fernell Hogan), Teresa (Nina White), and Aaron (Michael Iskander). Our setting, as the opening number from the teens lament, is Bergen County, New Jersey, and several clever script and design nods place us firmly in the late 90s.
In less adept hands, a musical with such morbidity at its core could easily have gone maudlin, depressing, or painfully saccharine, but the writers and Jessica Stone, the director, beautifully side-step this and strike the perfect note, combining pain and pathos with sincere humor. The key: having Kim be the most adult person in the musical, while having her not take anything too seriously. She begins the show by taking a bite from a candy necklace, and although she deals with parental incompetence and a slew of offensive comments about her disease, she mostly shrugs it off, stands her ground when she needs to, and chooses to embrace the amount of life she has to live.
In one sublime, non-textual moment, as all her friends talk about their future lives, the careers and marriages and kids they want, Kim silently looks off in the distance, aware that she won’t get that kind of future. It’s a beautifully directed and acted moment that made me grab my chest. That it was achieved without a single line from Kim proves how the musical manages to expertly walk the tone tightrope.
Lyrically, Lindsay-Abaire achieves balance throughout. Kim’s comedic song to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, for example, pairs sincere longing with childlike dreams. Her mother Patti records videos of her future baby, which are mostly hilarious ditties, but at one point transform into a lullaby (“Father Time”) that muses on the difficulty of time passing—a trenchant encapsulation of the piece as a whole. Her father gets a great patter song (“Happy for Her”), while her Aunt Deb has a ridiculous song where she teaches children “How to Wash a Check.” The teens get some great numbers (especially “Our Disease”) and have many show-choir-meets-Greek chorus-style background vocals, and the family has two heart-wrenching, multiple-perspective numbers (“The Inevitable Turn” and “Before I Go”) that bring to mind Sondheim’s “Now/Soon/Later” from A Little Night Music, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Twin Soliloquies” from South Pacific.
Just like Seth, who loves anagrams and scrambling letters around to make something new, the various elements of the show are scrambled to make something genius. Tesori more than keeps up with the lyrical and tonal variety in her score, which is sonically and orchestrally diverse. It is catchy but complex, her best work to date.
David Zinn’s modular set is like a puzzle box, eternally moved and pushed into different configurations, revealing new locations (from an ice rink to Kim’s house to school and beyond), masterfully transforming the space and following the many contours that the writers have built into the show. Likewise, Stone’s direction is spot-on; she navigates the complexity of the show, has created a visual and sonic world that feels grounded and subtle, and leads her ensemble to a set of across-the-board A+ performances.
Alongside Clark’s masterclass, there are so many performances to love here. Mauzey and Boyer offer compelling portraits of parents that are cartoonishly odd, dysfunctional, deeply flawed, laughable, and loving, but also hurtful, neglectful, selfish, and embittered by the ways Kim’s illness has impacted their lives. Crucially, neither Kim, nor the writers of the musical, forgive them, and they end up criticized and left behind. Justin Cooley is an adorably dorky Seth, and impressively keeps up with the veteran Clark; his smile is infectious, and both his acting and singing are top-notch. The quartet of teens is also superb–Hardy, Hogan, White, and Iskander perfectly capture the awkwardness, angst, and often misplaced passion of adolescence; their characters did not exist in the play, but it is hard to imagine Kimberly Akimbo without them.
Speaking of things this musical cannot do without, I must talk about Bonnie Milligan at length. Put simply, she is a star. Broadway is lucky to have her and thankfully audiences have realized this (at the performance I attended she got raucous applause at her entrance and after her two big songs). Aunt Deb is a bizarre role that Milligan makes the most of. Lending her signature belt (which so many fell in love with after Head Over Heels), and impressive comedy chops, Milligan transforms Aunt Deb into a loveable character. Like Kim, you can’t help but fall for her, perhaps because Milligan has made the character into the most sincere and loving person on the stage. To Bonnie Milligan, I have one thing to say: unless there’s some mail fraud to contend with, your Tony is in the mail.
Kimberly Akimbo is a humble show, a fairly small and intimate musical. It did not scale anything up for this transfer and, in some ways, it feels distinctly like an off-Broadway musical built for a small theater. However, it was just too good to stay there, and I am overjoyed that it is on Broadway for more audiences to see. While I have a lot of love for Hadestown and A Strange Loop, I can confidently say that Kimberly Akimbo is the best new musical on Broadway in years. It is everything you could want in a musical. It’s contemporary musical theater par excellence, both an homage to the conventions we love and a formally innovative piece that plays with expectations. It’s as good as it gets.
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