KIMBERLY AKIMBO a Momentous Masterpiece — Review
Kimberly Akimbo, the new musical which premiered tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company, does not carry itself with the weight David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori’s music, hold. The offbeat anti-comedy glides along like an awkward teen at the New Jersey ice-skating rink its characters hang around, but make no mistake: this is a momentous work of theatre, exquisitely performed by a stellar cast of talent, known and new.
Based on Lindsay-Abaire’s own 2001 play, it follows the days around Kimberly Levaco’s bittersweet sixteenth, somewhere in Bergen County, 1999. Born with a rare genetic condition that causes her body to age 4-5 times faster than average, she is existentially aware that most afflicted people don’t live past 16. And so she is played by veteran stage actor Victoria Clark, in a tremendously affecting performance. Wholeheartedly committed to her character’s trepidatious optimism, Clark wears a goofy, warm grin that gives way to the shattering hurt only a teenager can feel.
Recently moved to a new town by her chaotic family due to a hushed accident at their former home, the lonely Kim finally makes an in with her classmates by accepting the nerdy Seth’s invitation to collaborate on a health science project. She gives into his naive plan to have her speak about her own condition because, at the end of the day, she thinks Seth (a disarmingly charming Justin Cooley) is pretty cute, and his stuttery nervousness makes him a fellow outcast. The two strike up a tender friendship, though, like the rest of their teenage classmates, Seth is initially prone to thinking that everything is so weird, so awkward, so life-or-death. Kim knows better.
Her home life is one where aspirations, as her pregnant, self-centered mother Debra (Alli Mauzey) puts it, “were taken off the table a long time ago.” Her alcoholic father Buddy (played perfectly with overgrown childishness by Steven Boyer) tries, but not enough. By far the most mature in her house, Kim fills out Make a Wish requests with a tragic mundanity that’s resigned but youthfully hopeful. She is, after all, just a kid, and all she wants is a treehouse, a roadtrip, and the chance to live like everyone else.
That struggle towards serenity is interrupted by the arrival of her aunt Debra (star-on-the-rise Bonnie Milligan), who is bent on continuing the vague criminal streak that led her family into self-exile. Debra convinces Kim, Seth, and their classmates — played excellently by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander, and Nina White — to join her plan to steal unmailed checks in a darkly hilarious ode to laissez-faire fatalism.
If Clark provides a master class in total empathy, she is matched toe-to-toe by Milligan’s fabulous comedy, which can elicit belly laughs from a simple dropping of a trash bag. Hers is a talent to watch, and her performance here should mark the ascent of a bonafide star. But, really, each person onstage is impeccable—just as the ones behind the scenes.
Jessica Stone’s direction is exciting, alternating tenderness and hilarity at unexpected moments. Same goes for Danny Medford’s choreography, which at one point has the teens skate through David Zinn’s set: a skating rink which cleverly unfolds to reveal the Levaco’s home, the school library, and Kim’s bedroom. His scenic design and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting can be as oppressive as a suburban winter just as they can transmit the intense warmth Clark radiates.
Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics are a natural continuation of his book, acutely observed and well-paced. At no point do the words become simplified for the sake of delivering a tidy showtune, extending the human hesitation and fraughtness at the heart of the story into song. When the students finally present their science projects in the meandering “Our Disease,” neither the characters nor the audience are allowed moments of musical comedy relief. His lyrics, along with Tesori’s wonderful music, actively combat the form’s desire to please, instead dwelling in the often intensely uncomfortable situations the story entails.
Much has been made of Stephen Sondheim’s impact on the musical theatre form since his passing last month. His legacy is one of complex melodies that favor the messy intricacies of characters’ interiority than the simplicity of a hummable tune. Tesori’s music is folksier, not as intricately symphonic as his, but carries on the late master’s gift of creating richly textured, profoundly intimate music which alienates with its innovation even as it beckons us closer to better understand it. With Kimberly Akimbo, she stakes a worthy claim on a career that will leave its own mark on this most American form.
Kimberly Akimbo is now in performance at the Linda Gross Theater through January 2, 2022. For tickets and more information, visit here.