David Lindsay-Abaire’s early plays (Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo and Wonder of the World) were all whimsical or at least otherworldly. He has gone on to create musicals based on previously written stories, particularly Shrek the Musical with composer Jeanine Tesori. Now they have musicalized his play Kimberly Akimbo into a very impressive new show at Atlantic Theater Company which many may find works better than it did as a play due to the music and the songs. With a cast led by Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark in the title role, Jessica Stone’s production becomes more and more involving as it progresses to its satisfying climax.
Kimberly is a bright New Jersey teen with a great many problems, primary of which is that she has an aging disease like progeria in which she ages four to five times as fast as everyone else. So at almost 16 (her birthday is coming up) she looks like a lady in her early 70’s. As a result she has few friends and has learned how to be self-sufficient even at home.
Her home life is also atypical for suburban teenagers: her mother Pattie who is currently pregnant is accident prone and has both her arms in casts. Her father Buddy is an alcoholic and is completely unreliable though he works in a gas station. And then there is her larcenous but unconventional Aunt Debra, out on parole for her latest caper, who turns up and moves into the family’s basement. When Kim is befriended by classmate Seth, equally an outsider, and Debra comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme, Kimberly sees a way out. Her time is running out as people with her condition don’t usually live past age 16, and she wants to get to see the world before it is too late.
Lindsay-Abaire’s book for the musical is very much like his play but adds a chorus of four classmates (Delia, Martin, Teresa and Aaron) who become involved in Debra’s last plan, changes the name of classmate Jeff to Seth, and we visit the ice skating rink where Seth works several times. As Kimberly Levaco, Clark is more reticent and restrained than Marylouise Burke who created the role in the play. She builds gradually until the penultimate scene in which she lets loose with her mother and father for their poor parenting skills in the powerful “Before I Go.” Equally memorable is Bonnie Milligan as the high-spirited and amoral Debra who tells her life story in the show-stopping number “Better.” Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey make the parents true eccentrics, and each have two musical numbers that define their personalities.
Both Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue and lyrics capture teenagers extremely well which gives the youthful actors much to work with. As the foursome, two straight and two gay – but known to them, who want to win the musical talent competition at their high school, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White and Michael Iskander are not only believable, but also sing very well. As the outgoing but nerdy Seth, Justin Cooley is an excellent foil for Clark’s Kim and has a very revealing song in “Good Kid” revealing his life with his absent father and juvenile delinquent brother. Which bring us back to Clark whose subtle, low-key performance is the musical’s greatest strength. Much of the credit must go to Stone for her subtle but trenchant direction.
Tesori has written a very varied, melodic score, just as she did in her Caroline, or Change, remaining in character for all of these people and works coherently as a whole. She again demonstrates her remarkable range. It is a score one wants to hear again soon. David Zinn’s minimal sets, darkly lit by Lap Chi Chu, perfectly conjure up the several locales. Sarah Laux’s costumes help make the high school teenagers authentic. The projections by Lucy MacKinnon for the final sequence brings the musical to its joyous conclusion. The message of live every day of your life as if it were your last is made very clear. Not your usual plot for a musical but David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori have written one of the best shows of the season.
Kimberly Akimbo (extended through January 15, 2022)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission