Kimberly may be a teenager with an incredibly rare genetic disorder, but it’s everyone in her midst that has an affliction. Her pregnant mother is hypochondrial. Her father teeters between alcohol overconsumption and outright addiction. And yet we, Kimberly’s audience, are struck with a case of side-splitting laughter. It’s an unexpected diagnosis for a musical centered on a 16-year-old with a life-threatening malady, but one whose symptoms — giggling, guffawing — do not relent for the duration of “Kimberly Akimbo” at Broadway’s Booth Theatre. This new musical from the delightfully unhinged minds of David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori uses silliness as a weapon — one that can cut through preconceived notions about the meaning of life and stitch them back together in the same movement.
Something of note about “Kimberly Akimbo”: Its central character is actually named Kimberly Levaco (played by Victoria Clark). The character’s first name is part anagram of the second (the full anagram reads “Cleverly Akimbo”). We know this because the object of Kim’s affection is a boy named Seth (the scintillating Justin Cooley), a card-carrying member of “The Junior Wordsmiths of America.” Seth has a knack for word games, palindromes, anagrams — it’s a strangeness that Kim finds safety in — a psychological oddity to match her physical one: Due to a 1 in 50 million chromosomal chance, Kim ages four times faster than the average human. She is 16, but presents as a woman in her 70s. Kim is not so much susceptible to vicious bullying as she is to vocal blows from the very adults meant to shield her, parents Pattie (Alli Mauzey) and Buddy (Steven Boyer).
The musical, adapted by Lindsay-Abaire from his 2001 play, premiered to acclaim off-Broadway in 2021 at Atlantic Theater Company. On Broadway, Clark resurrects her quasi-progeric character with such delicate honesty, you believe there may just be a teenage psyche in her older-than-teenage body. A Tony Award winner, Clark is an exceptional actor with a firm grasp on Lindsay-Abaire’s throughline. Her singing is equally divine, but rarely on full display here. Her soprano itches to soar, yet it’s subdued into a chest voice/head voice/chest voice dance when wrapped around the youthful, electronic score from Tesori (who penned the music and co-wrote the lyrics with book writer Abaire). And yet, that’s okay. Whatever we lose in the stereotypically show-stoppy belt of an 11-o’clock number is more than made up for with the emotional depths of songs like “Before I Go” or the heartwarming “Hello, Sister.” Director Jessica Stone clearly allowed for sheer play in rehearsal in order for each actor to find the perfect voice lilts, exaggerations or face scrunches to rip both sad and happy tears out of a crowd.
Each piece of the “Kimberly Akimbo” puzzle is right where it belongs, including ensemblists Olivia Elease Hardy, Nina White, Fernell Hogan and Michael Iskander, who make up the teen quartet. Their presence reveals the vast emotional topography at play in Lindsay-Abaire’s script. Every day of school for them is a step closer to the real world. Every day of school for Kim is a defeat of the odds: The average life expectancy of people with her disease is, devastatingly, 16.
Truly, this story could be set in any time or space, but 1999 Jersey brings a specific aesthetic that the design team nails. The fluorescent ice rinks — the primary place Kim and co. gather outside school — and bean bag-equipped libraries of David Zinn’s set usher in a spirit of juvenescence. Sarah Laux (costumes) and J. Jared Janas (hair, wigs and makeup) indulge the questionable fashion choices of yesteryear — dresses worn over jeans, butterfly clips, and a hysterically heinous barrage of colorful stripes. All of it adds to the delight of “Kimberly Akimbo” and the devastation of innocent Kimberly Levaco’s fate.
Laughter certainly makes “Kimberly Akimbo” sweeter, but the story fully embraces its bitter notes. Right now, mortality is on the collective mind. Perhaps it’s the recent news of legendary Atlanta rapper Takeoff’s murder. Or British actress Josephine Melville, who passed away backstage at Nottingham Playhouse last month. Or a resurfaced photo I came across last week of performing artist Darius Barnes, who passed away this summer and was slated to be associate choreographer of this very musical. Death’s habit of coming before its time feels particularly prescient in “Kimberly Akimbo” because the musical reveals the endearing beauty of life but in the same breath dispels its permanence. In an attempt to soothe the grieving, people often relish death as a peaceful journey. “Kimberly Akimbo” knows life ought to be one too.
“Kimberly Akimbo” opened at the Booth Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.
Review photo: Joan Marcus.
Creative: Book by David Lindsay-Abaire; Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire; Music by Jeanine Tesori; Based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire; Musical Director: Chris Fenwick; Music orchestrated by John Clancy; Additional orchestrations by Macy Schmidt; Directed by Jessica Stone; Choreographed by Danny Mefford; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Sarah Laux; Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; Sound Design by Kai Harada; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon; Wig, Hair and Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas.
Produced by David Stone, Atlantic Theater Company, James L. Nederlander, LaChanze, John Gore, Patrick Catullo and Aaron Glick.
Cast: Victoria Clark, Steven Boyer, Justin Cooley, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, Nina White, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Skye Alyssa Friedman, Miguel Gil, Jim Hogan, Betsy Morgan and Alex Vinh.