Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Based upon the play by David Lindsay-Abaire
Booth Theatre, New York City
Sometimes the hardest theatre to write about, critically speaking, is a production that you’ve loved almost entirely without reservation. I mean, how many superlatives are there?! The current Broadway season has already yielded two such showbiz Holy Grails: one is the NYC transplant of London hit & Juliet, every bit as adorable as it was in the West End and, if anything, enhanced by it’s new North American slant. The other is new musical Kimberly Akimbo, small in scale but mighty in craft, ambition, accomplishment and sheer, beautiful heart.
Kimberly Akimbo’s book is by David Lindsay-Abaire, the author of the original 2010 play, which may explain the extraordinary richness of the musical’s characters -a bunch of flawed, troubled yet relatable people elbowing their way through life as best they can- and the mastery of a variety of themes and tones that frequently promise one thing then deliver something quite delightfully different. Lindsay-Abaire clearly loves this bunch and, by extension, so do we.
However, what elevates this unusual and entirely engaging musical from a thumping good night out to a rare, must-see event are the score (Jeanine Tesori’s music, and more about that shortly, and Lindsay-Abaire’s own lyrics which merge seamlessly with his hilarious, poignant, potty-mouthed script) and a central performance from Victoria Clark as the titular Kimberly that will inevitably go down in Broadway history.
Kimberly is a musical theatre heroine unlike any other: on the cusp of turning sixteen, she has a rare genetic disorder, affecting one in fifty million people, that causes her to age four to five times faster than the average. Thus we have Ms Clark, a radiant and powerful early sixty-something, realising the gauche awkwardness and open hearted energy of a sixteen year old with a conviction, physicality and technique that takes the breath away. When Clark sings – and it’s swoon-worthy when she does – her voice magically encapsulates youth but also a sense of autumnal finality. She is extraordinary.
Kimberly’s problems don’t just end with her disorder though, and neither does this musical’s infinite pleasures. Jessica Stone’s seamless, emotionally intelligent production features a galaxy of fine supporting performances fully in tune with Lindsay-Abaire’s off-beat vision and Tesori’s exhilaratingly eclectic music. But, wow, these people are messy. Heavily pregnant Mom Pattie (Alli Mauzey, glorious) is a narcissistic hypochondriac, both arms in plaster from a carpal tunnel syndrome operation and forever making videos for the unborn child she already prefers to the under-appreciated diamond she already has, while Dad Buddy (Tony nominee Steven Boyer on sensational form) is a feckless drunk, albeit one with a big heart.
On top of all that there’s Aunt Debra, a convicted felon with a money-making cheque rinsing scheme and a serious lack of accountability, newly arrived in the family home to upset the moral and ethical apple cart. Rising star Bonnie Milligan inherits her with a ferocious energy and laid back chutzpah only topped by a thrilling belt of a voice. I defy anybody not to watch either of her big numbers, one in each act, without a massive grin on their faces, even while marvelling at what a truly awful human being she is. Along with Clark, Milligan is providing the kind of moments that theatregoer’s memories are made of.
A set of unmissable performances is completed by Justin Cooley, in a fine, heart catching Broadway debut, as Seth, the fiercely smart fellow student, missing his own deceased mother, also a freakishly gifted anagram geek and tuba specialist (yes it’s random but it adds to the richly bizarre tapestry), who becomes Kimberly’s sidekick and love interest. A magnetic, warm stage presence, Cooley ensures that Seth is a guy to root for, even when being crassly insensitive to our beloved heroine, which pays rich dividends by the joyful, tear-stained finale. There is also a sort of Geek/Greek Chorus of four teenagers, played with real charm and tremendous specificity by a group of superb young performers – Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Logan, Michael Iskander and Nina White – three of which are making their Broadway debuts…. and what a show this is to get started with!
Tesori’s musical contribution feels like a sister score to her stunning work on Caroline, Or Change and Fun Home whereby sophisticated, choppy, character-driven sections give way to pastiches of late twentieth century pop and, in this instance, folk that inform the period and characters. Thus Clark gets a bittersweet ´I want’ song near the top of the show, then there’s a gorgeous lullaby for Pattie’s unborn child and possibly for the troubled Kimberly (delivered flawlessly by Mauzey) that goes from whimsical to profound within a few bars, and ‘Better’, a rambunctious, belty, poppy paean to doing entirely the wrong thing with which La Milligan nearly rips the roof off the theatre. Boyer gets a patter song that wouldn’t disgrace G&S, and the second half features an inspired section that pits a family dispute against a glitzy show choir rehearsal. It’s all powerfully evocative and memorable theatre music, and the cast album will be a must-have.
“Getting older is my affliction / getting older is your cure” sings Kimberly to her classmates at one point, with an astonishing level headedness and lack of rancour. The writing never descends into sentimentality or sensationalism but when it’s sad, it really goes there: see the way Clark’s Kimberly just blinks and firms up her mouth when her pregnant mother expresses hope that her next child will turn out better, or the unhistrionic way she affirms to Seth, as she turns sixteen, that people with her disorder usually don’t make it much past that age (“it’s just an average though” she trills).
If Kimberly Akimbo doesn’t gladden, then threaten to break, your heart, maybe book an appointment with a cardiologist to check if you even have one. This is life-enhancing theatre, a show you don’t just watch, you fall in love with. To quote one of the best numbers in the score, although pretty much every one is a gem, this’ll “make your shitty life better”. Kimberly’s a keeper and this show is a masterpiece.