Tuesday 15 November 2022

Kimberly Akimbo

 Booth Theatre, New York

13th October, 2022 (Preview)

I like your point of view

In a recent NY Times interview, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori reflected on their time collaborating on Shrek the Musical (2008). Whilst adapting the 2001 DreamWorks movie, the pair expressed a wish to make a musical together with the same intensity and focus as writing a play. The result, after a seven-year passion project, is Kimberly Akimbo: a musical based on Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name about a 16-year-old girl who has the body of a 72-year-old. Following an award-winning Off-Broadway run last year, the musical has now opened on Broadway. On its second preview, Kimberly Akimbo is a heart-warming, nourishing musical and a first-rate example of book and score complementing each other beautifully.

Using Lindsay-Abaire’s play as the main source provides the musical with a book which has a solid structure. Set in late 90s New Jersey, the show focuses on Kimberly Levaco and her dysfunctional family. Having recently moved house due to her aunt assaulting their neighbour, Kimberly has to balance making new friends at the local rink with hiding her dad’s alcoholism from her mom, herself a bit of a wastrel. But Kimberly is no ordinary teenager. Born with a disease that ages her body abnormally quickly, we hear that most people with her condition only have a life expectancy of about 16 years. Like with his Good People (2011), Lindsay-Abaire is interested in the promises and rhetoric of the American Dream not being fully realised; characters with imperfections and major flaws but with hopes, fears and good intentions buried somewhere beneath the surface. And in the centre of the storm is Kimberly, played with such authenticity by Tony Award-winning soprano Victoria Clark. We not only believe she’s 16 but her optimistic outlook and bright sparkle in her eyes is endearing without ever being overly sentimental.

The believable characters and strong plot are both enhanced by Tesori’s music. Like in Fun Home (2013), her playful melodies crack open the characters’ inner lives to give them depth. In ‘Make A Wish’, we hear Kimberly’s letter to New Jersey’s Make A Wish Foundation who’ll choose only one of her three wishes. “I bet you pick whatever’s cheapest, haha, smiley face” is typical of her warm humour. Whereas her first two wishes are fun and typical of a teenager, the song becomes an ever-growing list of things Kimberly, like any normal teenager, would wish for. The relentlessness then halts to allow Kimberly to wistfully long for a simple homecooked family meal. In ‘Anagram’ we see Kimberly inwardly work through her feelings for her nerdy classmate Seth: “A little odd, a little off, a bit unorthodox”. The simple melody powerfully grows to her realising she likes him. This is accompanied by Seth, who shares Lindsay-Abaire’s love of word games, working out an anagram of her name. Recognition has to go to Justin Cooley as Seth. Only Murders in the Building has taught us of the gems of multi-generational friendships (although here they’re the same age), and the innocent chemistry between Clark and Cooley is pitched at exactly the right level.

Kimberly’s maturity and optimism are at odds with her family of reprobates. Their immaturity is the source of much of the show’s humour, but the songs expand their characters to give further insight into their pain. Aware that their daughter may not live much longer, and expecting another imminently, we begin to understand how their first-time round being parents has both been not long enough and also painfully drawn out. And what cracking songs they are! In ‘Hello, Darling’, Alli Mauzey’s accident-prone Patti expresses her hopes for her new born and her fears she’ll have the same condition as Kimberly. In the fast-paced patter song ‘Happy For Her’, Steven Boyer displays tongue-twisting verbal dexterity on a drive to school in which he plays the over-protective father. But the show’s breakout star is Bonnie Milligan as Aunt Debra. ‘Better’, an upbeat hymn to do whatever it takes to “make your shitty life better”, is a hilarious skewering of the typical ‘feel-good’ song.

If Lindsay-Abaire creates a believable world, it is meticulously rendered by David Zinn: a cluttered kitchen diner complete with Maxwell house coffee tub; the school hallway; an ice rink complete with snow and real onstage skating. And when the side wall opens up to reveal Kimberly’s bedroom, we can see the same level of detail go right into the wings. Ice skating pictures and Dawson’s Creek posters adorn the walls, and a globe and giraffe teddy show what she still dreams of doing.

Kimberly Akimbo is destined to be the musical of the season and I’ll be rooting for it at next year’s Tony’s. Running through Times Square in the pouring rain afterwards didn’t hamper us sharing the show’s upbeat view on life. Indeed, “When life gives you lemons… you’ve got to go out and steal some apples because who the fuck wants lemons?!”

Kimberly Akimbo plays at the Booth Theatre, New York, booking to April 2023. For further information, please visit https://kimberlyakimbothemusical.com/

Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo. Credit: Joan Marcus

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