‘Kimberly Akimbo’ Theater Review: David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori’s Wonderful New Broadway Musical Is Happy-Sad Heaven – Hollywood Reporter

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Tony winner Victoria Clark stars as a New Jersey high school student with a rare rapid-aging disease in this poignant comedy about adolescent outsiders grasping life.
By David Rooney
Chief Film Critic
Meet your new favorite musical. When Kimberly Akimbo premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company last December, it was a breath of fresh air, an intimate show about teenage misfits and the unreliable adults in their world that balanced hilarious comedy with aching poignancy and quirks unfailingly grounded in emotional truth. Transferring intact to Broadway, this small-scale charmer has not only retained but enriched its distinctive qualities, sweeping in as a burst of invigorating originality in a sea of repurposed movies, jukebox compilations and revivals.

OK, so strictly speaking this is not an original work but a reinvention of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play about a lonely teenager suffering from a rare fast-aging disease like progeria, which makes her age at four and a half times the normal rate. She’s a 16-year-old — the average life expectancy of her disease — with the body of a septuagenarian. But in reimagining the work with composer Jeanine Tesori, his collaborator on the stage version of Shrek, Lindsay-Abaire has crafted something uncommonly satisfying, a new musical so clever, funny and touching you might want to give everyone on stage a hug.

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With credits including Fun Home, Caroline, or Change and Violet, Tesori is no novice at molding unlikely source material into unconventional musical theater. Her score for Kimberly Akimbo is particularly strong on melody, nailing the show’s tonal contrasts with jaunty tunes that often play in counterpoint to themes of sorrow, solitude, familial dysfunction and mortality. The constant, as with all Tesori’s best work, is how seamlessly she integrates songs into book scenes.
Victoria Clark, a Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza, reprises her exquisitely nuanced performance in the title role — as does the entire 9-person ensemble from the Atlantic, with Jessica Stone making a sparkling Broadway directing debut. And the production fits well on the snug Booth Theatre stage, scaling up ever so slightly without sacrificing its disarming rough edges in any concession to Broadway slickness.
Kimberly might be young in years, but she’s the grownup in her household, where her flaky dad Buddy (Steven Boyer) is mostly sozzled on beer, and her hypochondriac mother Pattie (Ali Mauzey) lives in tetchy regret for the missteps that left her married and pregnant right out of high school. She’s placing all her hopes on the new — and she prays, “normal” — baby she’s expecting, mostly oblivious to the ways in which this wounds Kimberly.

The miracle of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing is that while Pattie and Buddy are negligent no-hopers whose daily contributions to the swear jar are the least of their parenting misdemeanors, the show views them with infinite compassion. As does Kimberly.
With invaluable help from set designer David Zinn and costumer Sarah Laux, Stone defines their milieu — blue-collar Bergen County, New Jersey in 1999 — as a slipstream of missed opportunity with windows of joy for those brave enough to crack them open. It takes unbroken Kimberly’s acceptance of her circumstances, as much as her justified anger at her parents’ immaturity, to awaken their sensitivity. But even then, the family remains on shaky ground; a happy dinnertime interlude is underscored by the awareness it could all go south very fast in the song “The Inevitable Turn.”
Kimberly’s life becomes a little brighter when she forms a sweet friendship with classmate Seth (Justin Cooley), a tuba-playing fellow misfit notable for the cheerful serenity with which he occupies his outsider status. An unabashed nerd with a fascination for puzzles and anagrams, he scrambles her name, Kimberly Levaco, into Cleverly Akimbo in a lovely song that broadens our insight into both characters.
As Seth plays around with different word combinations, Kimberly sits back and studies him, singing her inner thoughts: “I like the way you understand / I like the way you think / A little weird / A little wise / A little out of sync / I like your point of view.” The simplicity of those lyrics is typical of Lindsay-Abaire’s ability to find unexpected beauty in askew connections.

The agent of change that expands their world beyond home, school and the local skate rink where Seth works part-time is Kimberly’s aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan), who doesn’t so much arrive as descend like a tornado of disruption.
The priceless Milligan (highlight of the short-lived Go-Go’s musical, Head Over Heels) might be giving the most spectacularly funny performance on Broadway right now as a blithely amoral scammer whose past transgressions caused Kimberly’s family to relocate in a hurry from another borough. Her hymn to improving one’s “shitty life” by any means necessary, “Better,” is a riotous potted background bio and a paean to shady opportunism rolled into one.
Debra ropes Kimberly and Seth — as well as four classmates (Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander and Nina White), preparing for a show-choir competition while struggling with romantic crossed wires — into an elaborate check-forging scheme. The expediency with which Debra sorts out the kids’ sexual confusion while schooling them in crime gets one of the show’s biggest laughs.
Adolescent uncertainty and yearning are key themes, explored with surprising depth given the breezy humor that is the musical’s predominant tone. When the students present biology projects profiling different illnesses in the utterly delightful “Our Disease,” a shaken Kimberly observes that scurvy, fasciolosis and even her own condition, which she and Seth have chosen as their subject, are just Exhibit A on the spectrum of ailments. Exhibit B is adolescence, with its peer pressure, anxiety, bruised egos and festering unease.

“Getting older is my affliction,” she sings. “Getting older is your cure.” Moments like that, shifting from humor to pathos in an instant, are the reason you’ll likely find yourself laughing while holding back tears more than once during the show. While the ending appears to point inevitably toward heartbreak, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori gracefully sidestep that finality by closing on a note of transporting happiness and release. This is a musical whose sentiments are full-throated yet sincere, never cloying.
The performances of the entire cast are in perfect harmony with the offbeat material, with all four high schoolers who make up the ensemble etching distinct characters. Boyer and Mauzey have dug deeper into their problem-parent roles to find the humanity in their screwups and shortcomings, and the empathy in their fragile hopes, while Milligan is an irresistible reprobate with killer comic timing.
Cooley, in a terrific New York stage debut, is a major discovery, playing a character who could easily have been a bundle of studied tics but making him a genuine eccentric, more resilient than his own unhappy home life would indicate. The young actor never has a false moment. Witnessing Seth and Kimberly find one another — and watching both actors delicately negotiate the tricky lines of an unorthodox relationship that blossoms gently into romance — is balm for the soul.
As for Clark, her ability to convey teenage gawkiness with an innate wisdom and poise far beyond her character’s actual years is profoundly affecting. In “Our Disease,” Kimberly bitterly regrets turning a spotlight on her medical condition (“Like I’m a slide / I’m a chart / I’m a freak on display”), but it’s the way Clark turns this anomalous character into every teenage outcast that makes the show so moving. With her jewel-like soprano, she finds emotional textures you might otherwise not know were there in the songs, simultaneously breaking your heart while lifting you up. She gives a performance that’s unshowy yet quietly magnificent, something to be treasured.

Venue: Booth Theatre, New York
Cast: Victoria Clark, Steven Boyer, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, Nina White
Book and lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Jessica Stone
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Video designer: Lucy MacKinnon
Orchestrations: John Clancy
Music direction: Chris Fenwick
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Presented by David Stone, Atlantic Theater Company, James L. Nederlander, LaChanze, John Gore, Patrick Catullo, Aaron Glick

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