Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire’s oddball take on the title character’s dishearteningly sad disease, began life as a play back in 2001, reaching New York via the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2003.
In 2021 Lindsay-Abaire (libretto and lyrics) combined resources with the eloquent composer, Jeanine Tesori, to restyle the play as an award-winning musical produced at the Atlantic Theater Company in November 2021. This is the production that has moved to the Booth Theatre where it now resides featuring the glowing performance of Victoria Clark as the troubled title character.
Jessica Stone repeats her directorial duties, managing the move to a larger venue with skill and subtlety.
Kimberly is afflicted with an illness that causes her to age rapidly and almost certainly die young. Her very adult fate weighs heavily on her teenage mind imprisoned in an aging body. Sadly, she is also tasked with negotiating a totally dysfunctional home and school life.
Set in a New Jersey suburb in 1999, the musical follows the original play closely with the addition of four schoolmates—Delia (Olivia Elease Hardy), Martin (Fernell Hogan), Teresa (Nina White) and Aaron (Alex Vinh, a very talented standby for Michael Iskander)—who act as a youthful Greek chorus and criminal conspirators.
When first seen, 15-year-old Kimberly Levaco is waiting forlornly outside a skating rink to be picked up by her wayward, alcoholic father, Buddy (Steven Boyer of Hand to God, almost making this ne’er-do-well’s personal angst bearable). Her schoolmate, Seth (a vibrant Justin Cooley), working part time at the rink, offers to help—the beginning of an enduring friendship.
Due to her illness, the person we see marking time looks like a mature woman, not a teenager. The thrust of Kimberly Akimbo is how she yearns for adventures and silly teenage things, knowing full well that people with her condition rarely live past sixteen. Later, in the soon-to-be-invaded privacy of her bedroom she writes to the Make A Wish Foundation (“Make a Wish”) revealing her deeply moving desires for normalcy, although normalcy is a distant concept in her totally dysfunctional family.
Her mother, Pattie (Alli Mauzey in a rich, but sardonic performance), is pregnant, a situation that will eventually lead to Kimberly losing her one personal fortress in a chaotic home, when her bedroom is transformed into a baby nursery.
Kimberly’s totally amoral aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan, egregiously over-the-top) bursts in, shifting the musical from a moving, but humorous, study of a troubled family into a silly farce. “How to Wash a Check” tells Kimberly and her friends how to recycle checks, fished out of U.S. Post Boxes, rewrite them and cash them. This is just one of grifter Debra’s ludicrous illegal acts.
Debra provides cynical comic relief. Her criminal efforts, using the teens as her rather awkward cohorts, become the inadvertent source of Kimberly’s backing to fulfill her fantasies. Debra, despite a raucous performance by Milligan, somehow takes the momentum out of Kimberly’s dire situation.
All the performances are terrific. Clark and Cooley make a poignant pair. Their interactions are lovely. Clark never overwhelms him with her enormous charisma and gorgeous voice and he is careful not to let his youthful energy eclipse hers.
Danny Mefford’s choreography catches the youthful vigor of the kids, but little else.
David Zinn’s elaborate scenery provided multiple playing areas with mind-bogglingly quick shifts. He helped tell the story seamlessly, helped by Jeanette Oi-Suk-Yew’s lighting and Sarah Laux’s simple character and period-perfect costumes.
Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics and Tesori’s trenchant music are perfect extensions of the dialogue, drifting between emotional soliloquies and plot advancement.
Kimberly Akimbo is an awkward combination of sweetness and sadness as it deals with her need to fulfill her desire to live the fullest until her inevitably premature death.
Kimberly Akimbo (open run)
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission