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Theatre in Review: Kimberly Akimbo (Atlantic Theater Company)

Victoria Clark, Justin Cooley. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Because so many contemporary musicals are content to rehash old material, it's notable when a creative team transforms a difficult dramatic work with music, providing it with an identity of its own. When it opened Off Broadway in 2003, David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo earned much acclaim, along with a significant minority opinion (mine included) that found it maudlin and self-consciously wacky. The premise is the stuff of teen weepies: The title character suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes her to age at four times the normal rate; a teenager, she looks like someone in need of an AARP card. (The real-life disease, known as Progeria, is never referenced in the script.) Few people with this condition make it past the age of sixteen; Kimberly is fifteen, and her birthday is imminent.

Before you reach for the Kleenex, I'll add that Lindsay-Abaire often plays this situation for laughs, subjecting his heroine to one comic indignity after another. "Are you sensitive?" asks a male friend, having cheerfully admitted that she resembles the school cafeteria's elderly lunch lady. Sensitive? Kimberly needs a hide of pure leather to get through her day.

For starters, Kimberly is part of a wildly dysfunctional family scarred by an unmentionable scandal that caused them to flee their hometown of Secaucus. (The script is rife with New Jersey jokes.) She is adept at handling her father, Buddy, when he is in his cups, which is most of the time. Pattie, her visibly pregnant mother, is busy making videos for her unborn child; her arms are in casts, thanks to an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome, so she needs someone to feed her and attend to other bodily needs. It's a family turned upside down, consisting of immature, barely functioning parents and the ailing daughter who keeps them from imploding. Then there's Debra, Pattie's sister, a sociopath and bunco artist who drags Kimberly and four of her classmates into a brazen check-washing scheme. The way it is structured, if anyone ends up in jail, it won't be Debra.

In its original form, Kimberly Akimbo was cartoonish and emotionally manipulative, too ready to cash in on easy laughs and even easier tears. But Lindsay-Abaire, acting as librettist, and composer Jeanine Tesori use the stylization of musical theatre to create a distinctive comic fable set in an oddball, inherently absurd universe that regards Kimberly with something like depraved indifference. The show treads a wire-thin tightrope between farce and tragedy and, remarkably, it never loses its step.

That it succeeds is due in no small part to Jessica Stone's supremely confident direction, which is alert to the script's whiplash mood shifts. Stone has assembled an exceptionally nimble cast, led by the superb Victoria Clark as Kimberly. Her middle-aged face surrounded by tangles of unruly hair, her awkward adolescent body language complemented by a wardrobe designed to cover herself up -- usually a jeans-and-skirt combination plus baggy, long-sleeved tops -- she is a natural misfit at home, in school, and anywhere else. Pouring out her fantasies in a letter to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, acting as a parental referee, tremulously responding to a young man's attentions, and detailing (to her profound embarrassment) her condition in a class presentation, Clark paints a remarkable portrait of self-contained sorrow. Especially moving is the moment when, tapping into her anger, she lashes out at her young partners in crime, ticking off a list of adolescent woes then adding, "Getting older is my affliction/Getting older is your cure."

Clark's work is buttressed by two exceptionally strong supporting performances. Making his Off-Broadway debut, Justin Cooley is a model of baby-giraffe awkwardness as Seth, the kindly uber-nerd who becomes Kimberly's constant companion and possible love interest. (How nerdy? He speaks fluent Elvish, belongs to Junior Wordsmiths of America, and is a whiz at anagrams. For example, he turns "mother-in-law" into "woman Hitler.") He and Clark make the oddest of couples, all the more touching for the seeming gulf in their ages. As the felonious Debra, who never met a law she couldn't break nor a youth she couldn't corrupt, Bonnie Milligan is a genial motormouth, rattling off one-liners at such speed that one barely has time to take their horrifying measure. Meeting Seth, in rapid succession she greets him amiably, physically threatens him, and offers him a hand job, adding, "I'm just kidding. I don't actually do that anymore. Unless ya got twenty bucks. You're not underage are ya?" She stops the first act with, "Better," a rap sheet of her felonies that offers a view into her reckless, scattershot mind.

Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey make an amusing, if alarming, Punch-and-Judy pair as Kimberly's feckless, perpetually-at-war parents, hooked on their disappointments and blind to their daughter's anguish. Their squabbling is pure vaudeville. (She: "Remember when I had a heart attack? At the Panera?" He: "That wasn't a heart attack, it was a panic attack. Because they were out of bread-bowls." She: "How do you run out of bread-bowls at Panera? I had to eat my soup out of a cardboard cup like I was a pilgrim.") Providing solid comic counterpoint are Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White, and Michael Iskander as Kimberly's friends, a riotously mismatched tangle of romantic yearnings and incompatible sexual orientations.

The score is hardly the most ambitious in Tesori's catalogue, but she and Lindsay-Abaire know exactly where songs are needed to deepen a character or cue a narrative transition. These include "Father Time," which lays bare Pattie's inner sorrows; "How to Wash a Check," in which Debra instructs her young charges in the ways of crime; and "Good Boy," which gives Seth a solid motivation for going along with Debra's scheme. Clark makes the most of "Before I Go," in which Kimberly blasts her parents with a burst of clarifying honesty before making a life-changing decision.

Indeed, it's not too much to say that the musical improves on its source material in virtually every way. At this stage, however, Kimberly Akimbo would benefit from a few tweaks. The number, "A Different Me," set at the local skating rink, doesn't quite have the punch that an exuberant first-act finale requires. (Maybe choreographer Danny Mefford could help out here.) Also, it strains credulity that Kimberly is unaware of the dark family secret that sets up a stunning reappraisal of her position at home. And, throughout, Kimberly is too often a passive observer of the eccentrics who surround her; more work could be done to put her at the center of her own story.

Still, at a time when so many musicals feel so standardized, here's a show with a screw-loose point of view underscored by a real poignancy, created by writers with a solid understanding of musical theatre craft. It is also efficiently designed. David Zinn's seemingly neutral set has walls that slide, and pivot open to create a variety of locations, with Lap Chi Chu's lighting working subtly to shift the tone of each scene. Sarah Laux's mostly downmarket costumes also include some humorously glittery outfits for a show-choir medley from Dreamgirls. J. Jared Janas' wig, hair, and makeup designs are especially helpful in creating Kimberly's singular look. Kai Harada's sound design is blessedly natural, with a number of striking effects, include that of a mailbox being dragged down a set of stairs. Lucy MacKinnon's projection design plays a key role in an eleventh-hour road trip, about which I'll keep mum except to note that it effectively sets the stage for the musical's happy finale.

Well, sort of happy. For Kimberly, there can be no ultimate deliverance. But, as Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori show, she can find transcendence in the present moment -- which, when you think about it, is all any of us can manage. Her situation may seem tragic, but it may not be all that different from ours: We all live precariously near an edge, even if most of us choose not to notice it. --David Barbour

(10 December 2021)

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