Theater Review: “Kimberly Akimbo” Is Heart-Rending and Life-Affirming
By Christopher Caggiano
The new musical by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire is a show that everyone who believes in the artistic future and emotional power of the American musical will want to see.
Kimberly Akimbo. Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Jessica Stone. Choreographed by Danny Mefford. At New York’s Atlantic Theater Company through January 15.
These days, buying a ticket to a theater performance is no guarantee that you’re actually going to see the show. The recent emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has led to a slew of cancellations, particularly in New York City.
And no production is immune: Hamilton, The Lion King, Dear Evan Hansen, Aladdin, Hadestown, Come From Away, and the newly condensed Harry Potter play have all canceled multiple shows recently due to breakthrough COVID cases in the cast or crew. Even the mighty Hugh Jackman, who is currently in previews for what promises to be a blockbuster revival of The Music Man, had to bow out of several performances after testing positive for the virus.
The cancellations have unfortunately led to numerous show closures, including the return engagement of Waitress and the former box-office powerhouse Ain’t Too Proud. The new musical Mrs. Doubtfire recently announced a nine-week hiatus in an attempt to avoid permanent closure.
All of this was going through my head as I rode the train to New York City to catch a matinee of the new Off-Broadway musical Kimberly Akimbo at the Atlantic Theater Company. The show had canceled a performance a few days prior, so I was worried that this New York day trip might have been for naught. Thankfully, at least on this day, the show did, in fact, go on. And I can honestly say that it was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I’ve ever had in the theater.
Kimberly Akimbo is based on the 2000 play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire, who also has written the book and lyrics for the musical adaptation. Most adapted musicals groan under the strain of the effort. You can almost feel the creators trying to figure out where the musical numbers should be and which material to cut to accommodate those numbers. (See the enjoyable but mechanical Mrs. Doubtfire.) With Kimberly Akimbo, the music is so seamlessly meshed with the material that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t planned as a musical in the first place.
The eponymous Kimberly here is a teenage girl who suffers from progeria — an extremely rare, incurable disease that causes sufferers to age at four to five times the normal growth rate. The average life expectancy is 16 — and in the story of the musical, Kim is about to celebrate her 16th birthday. “It’s only an average, though,” Kim asserts with characteristic cheer.
In a bit of irony that’s perhaps just a bit too on-the-nose, Kimberly is far more mature and responsible than the adults around her, including Pattie, her narcissistic, hypochondriacal mother; Buddy, her well-meaning but irresponsible father; and her blustery and amoral Aunt Debra, who sets the story’s felonious subplot into motion. Much of the show’s rich poignancy arises from the fact that Pattie and Buddy are about to have another child and see this baby as an opportunity to “get things right” this time. The terrible subtext here is that Kim will probably not live to see her sibling grow up.
With the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, it’s heartening to be reminded that we have musical theater creators of the caliber of Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. Tesori may be our greatest living theater composer. When selecting subject matter, she makes bold choices (Violet; Caroline, or Change; Fun Home; Soft Power) but she also isn’t afraid to work in a more mainstream idiom (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek).
What’s more, Tesori is very adept at matching musical styles to the moment. Much of the score to Kimberly Akimbo has a jaunty, upbeat feel, in keeping with the title character’s resolute cheerfulness in the face of an uncertain future. The show’s opening number features a quartet of high school students complaining about high school, adolescent crushes, and living in New Jersey.
At first, the number seems out of place, especially as it doesn’t prominently feature Kim. But eventually the number’s relevance becomes clear: these are the mundane highs and lows that Kim won’t get to fully experience because of her disease, a heart-rending theme that Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire emphasize throughout the show. Even Kim’s “I Want” song reflects this duality. As Kim crafts her letter to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the accompanying music is nonetheless chirpy and bright, like Kim herself.
One of the truly remarkable things about Kimberly Akimbo is that, despite the gravity of the subject matter, the show is surprisingly uplifting and genuinely funny. Lindsay-Abaire smartly subverts the tiresome “When life gives you lemons…” trope and takes it in a wonderfully humorous and profane direction.
This deft admixture of absurdity and profundity is truly remarkable; in lesser hands, the material could have been maudlin or precious. The show continues this admirable balancing act right through to the finale, at which point I found myself gasping with sobs, despite the song’s lilting melody and jaunty mandolin accompaniment. The build is deceptive. Kimberly Akimbo continually alternates between comedy and gravity to the point where you’re not really sure where the story is headed. But when it gets there, the moment hits you like a smack in the face.
The casting here is sheer perfection. Victoria Clark, as Kimberly, is a treasure, as indeed she is in everything she does. I could watch Clark all day in practically anything and never tire of her nuance and authenticity. The first thing we see at the start of the show is Clark’s beaming face as she munches contentedly on a candy necklace. She so masterfully embodies the countenance and inflections of a 16-year-old, you genuinely forget that Clark is actually 62.
Young performer Justin Cooley is a marvelous find as Kimberly’s nerdy friend and potential love interest, Seth. Cooley’s confident performance imbues Seth with a palpable awkwardness but also sweetness that serves as a rich foil for Kim’s own uniqueness. This interplay is particularly effective in a first-act duet for Kim and Seth, “Anagram.” Seth attempts to find an anagram for Kim’s full name, “Kimberly Levaco,” whence emerges the title of the show. While Seth prattles on distractedly, Kim internally muses about how much she’s starting to like Seth and his quirky ways. The number not only showcases the rich interplay of the two performers, but it also reflects the multiple levels upon which the script and the score operate.
Steven Boyer as Buddy and Alli Mauzey as Pattie also turn in remarkably effective performances, portraying Kim’s parents not as monsters or comic shells, but as genuine, flawed people who are just trying their best in a difficult situation. And the role of the boisterous Aunt Debra seems like it was written for the force of nature that is Bonnie Milligan, a major standout from the short-lived Head Over Heels on Broadway.
The show certainly has its flaws. The supporting cast features an unrequited love quadrangle among four amorous high school students. On the one hand, the quartet serves as a useful reminder of what Kim will never experience, and they do help Aunt Debra with her decidedly less-than-legal money-making scheme. But the whole everyone-loves-someone-they-can’t-have device doesn’t serve much of a purpose, although the comic payoff when Aunt Debra impatiently reads their beads is admittedly hysterical. Also, it should be noted that full enjoyment of Kimberly Akimbo depends upon a suspension of conventional morality. The characters engage in — and get away with — activities that are questionable at least and reprehensible at most.
I genuinely hope this production has some kind of afterlife, whether it’s a commercial Off-Broadway run or a Broadway transfer. It is a show that everyone who believes in the artistic future and emotional power of the American musical will want to see.
Christopher Caggiano is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston. He has written about theater for a variety of outlets, including TheaterMania.com, American Theatre, and Dramatics magazine. He also taught musical-theater history for 16 years and is working on a number of book projects based on his research.