[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]
From the time that Victoria Clark steps on stage at curtain rise, it becomes a “you had me at hello” moment. The immensely talented and highly decorated senior citizen enacts the conceit that she is Kimberly Levaco, a 15-year-old suffering from progeria, the rare, rapid-aging disease. The disease ages her at four or more times the normal rate, and the life expectancy is 16 years, so most likely, her expiration date will soon arrive. Clark captures the affect and behaviors of a teen with great precision, and her buoyancy and optimism in the face of inordinate bad fortune puts a smile on your face and a hole in your heart.
Geeky and looking like she could be the grandmother of her peers, Kimberly doesn’t have a lot going for her. She would love nothing more than to experience for a single day how normal people live. Apart from not fitting in socially because of her physical weirdness, her family is wacko.
Her mother Pattie, played by the perky Alli Mauzey, is a narcissistic hypochondriac who wouldn’t know how to prepare a meal. Both of Pattie’s hands and forearms are in casts, making any activity difficult. In one sequence, Kimberly feeds Pattie. With visual tongue in cheek, it appears that mother is feeding daughter rather than vice versa. To top things off, Pattie is pregnant, although there is a high likelihood that any child that Pattie and Kimberly’s father, Buddy, spawn would also suffer progeria. But that’s another story.
Portrayed as well-intended but shifty by Jim Hogan, Buddy is a heavy-drinking wastrel whose pride and main source of supplemental income is winning bets that he can put a whole mango in his mouth. Guess who’s the real adult in the family. One funny vignette has Kimberly expressing romantic interest in new friend Seth. In his protective fatherly mode, Buddy says that she better be careful not to get pregnant, to which erstwhile aged teenager Kimberly replies “Dad, I went through menopause four years ago!”
And then there’s Aunt Debra. An inveterate grifter, she’s served time. When Kimberly’s parents moved, they kept their new address secret from Debra. Of course, a grifter will always find a way, and an effusive and brazen Bonnie Milligan acts her craftiness and evasive nature with great flair. The final major character is Seth, played by a form-fit Justin Cooley as a bubbly loner with an anagram passion. Like Kimberly, he has had to overcome poor parenting to find his own way in the world.
In the adaptation of this play to a musical, composer Jeanine Tesori has drawn diverse arrows from her rich musical quiver that has produced music for “Fun Home,” “Shrek,” “Caroline, or Change,” and many others. The overall music tenor is upbeat and youthful, but there are also reflective moments such as Seth’s ruminations about being a “Good Kid,” without much benefit. David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize winner for his drama “Rabbit Hole,” has adapted his kooky but highly insightful story and added incisive and revealing lyrics to songs. (Disclaimer – This reviewer and his editor were fortunate to attend an informative and entertaining panel discussion with Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire as well as Bonnie Milligan and Justin Cooley shortly before we saw the performance.)
The narrative includes sequences that derive from the main characters’ traits, such as Kimberly’s presenting a science project with Seth on her disease or applying to the New Jersey Make-a-Wish Foundation, hopefully for a visit to Disneyland (represented by the charming song “Make a Wish”.) Her parents’ ineptness is endless, and even when they try to do the right thing, they don’t have the skills or the perseverance to make it happen. Kimberly’s dreams go unrealized.
An otherwise unrelated thread involves a Greek chorus of four geeky schoolmate choristers needing money to have costumes made for a competition. But Debra has a scheme that would satisfy Kimberly and the choir group’s needs. However, the playwright’s endorsement of the outcome of the plan introduces moral turpitude that may create a sense of discomfort in some of the audience.
That said, the play has a heart of gold. It recognizes the need for friendship, even among fractured people, and the importance of seizing the day. No one gets a second time around. It tells its story with great compassion and in an entertaining and involving manner. Apt music and dance produce tremendous audience enthusiasm that ensures this winning production will enjoy a great run and an esteemed position in the constellation of Broadway musicals.
“Kimberly Akimbo” with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, is performed at Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NY, NY on an open run.