The way teenagers in the new musical Kimberly Akimbo express love — their love language, if you’re into that kind of thing — is by making anagrams of each other’s names. A high-school student, Kimberly, crushes on the tuba-playing, Elvish-speaking Seth, and the two nerdy adolescents express their affection by making word scrambles. Kimberly Levaco becomes Cleverly Akimbo; Seth Brett Weetis becomes, a touch too perfectly, The Bitter Sweets. Puzzles require attention, which is the first component of love. To change David Lindsay-Abaire’s poignant 2001 comedy into this fresh and gorgeous musical required this same deep-play, letter-by-letter concentration. Lindsay-Abaire and the composer Jeanine Tesori pick up the original (Kimberly Akimbo the play) and rearrange its pieces carefully (Kimberly Akimbo the musical), and in doing so they find hidden, sideways beauty.
In both the play and the Off Broadway musical, Kimberly suffers from a premature aging disorder, so at almost 16, she already looks as if she’s in her sixties. Victoria Clark — who won a Tony as the heartbroken mother in The Light in the Piazza — plays Kim in a dress worn over jeans, tucking her hair back with sparkly barrettes, and hunching her shoulders in a permanent shrug, partly because she’s shy, partly to keep her backpack on. Kimberly is calm when her father Buddy (Steven Boyer) shows up late and drunk to pick her up from ice skating; she’s calm when her pregnant hypochondriac mother, Pattie (Alli Mauzey), makes thoughtless comments, hoping her new baby won’t be as much trauma and trouble as her fragile firstborn. To survive her family’s absentminded callousness, Kim has made herself into a sunny, unflappable kid who asks the Make-a-Wish Foundation for a treehouse (“Please see the attached documentation informing you of my condition and life expectancy!” she sings cheerily) even while secretly yearning for a real miracle, a home-cooked meal.
Don’t be bummed out by the mention of the Make-a-Wish Foundation: Kimberly Akimbo is mostly hilarious. (No one casts Steven Boyer, who was the lead in the anarchic puppet-horror comedy Hand to God, unless they want to grease a production’s wheels and aim it towards mayhem.) In the pursuit of laughs, both Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori play with our nostalgia. The program is careful to note that the events take place in 1999, which was an amazing moment for fashion: By law, no shirt could appear without another, longer-sleeved shirt below it. (Sarah Laux’s costumes have fun throughout.) Tesori tucks little references to a certain stripe of teenage-hood in her music: In her guitar-forward score, I think I heard a quote from Tom Petty, and another from (I know this sounds unlikely) Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” In 1999, kids didn’t usually have cell phones, so teen entertainment still tended to happen at the skate rink or in the school library. And look, options in New Jersey are limited, the show’s chorus tells us. They are a quartet from the high school’s show choir locked in a terrible pileup of wrong-way crushes. The soprano loves the tenor, who loves the bass, who loves the alto, who loves the soprano. “I’m too awkward / I’m too bright / I’m too anxious / I’m polite. Which is not the way to be in New Jersey…” they sing, all misfits, as choruses have been, going back to the Greeks.
Kimberly is about to turn 16, and her calm is shaken. Seth (Justin Cooley) thinks they should do a presentation on her disease for their science class, and he doesn’t understand that she’d rather not — since telling her classmates that people with her disorder don’t usually live past 16 might draw their pity and fear. The waters are therefore already a little troubled when her Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) cannonballs right into them. Milligan is a comic blunderbuss who should come with a warning: Her brilliant sound is about two sizes too big for the little Atlantic Theater stage, and she tosses it around easily and a little menacingly — like a mugger tossing a knife from hand to hand. Even though Kimberly tries to keep a lid on her exuberance (“It’s important I have plausible deniability!”) Debra has soon swept Kimberly, Seth, and the Show Choir quartet into a wild plan to commit check fraud. Check fraud! I am telling you there is a song in this musical about how to wash a check. It’s probably exactly what Horace was thinking about when he said poetry should delight … and instruct.
All the plots accelerate into absurdity — Aunt Debra drags a mailbox onstage, there’s an ice skating sequence with jumps, Seth loses and finds his tuba — but Kim is the only one who really feels the breakneck pace of life. In the most pointed number, she spaces out in the middle of her science presentation, meditating on the way her friends all complain about being young, suffering peer pressure, having pimples, needing to escape. “Getting older is my affliction,” she sings. “Getting older is your cure.” Clark smiles and smiles as Kimberly. She even smiles as she sings, which brings the sound up into her cheeks and eyes, where her beautifully abraded soprano seems to spill out of her tear ducts. The show manages to stay on the brink — always laughing, never quite weeping — for its entire length.
The Atlantic Theater Company production is probably bound for Broadway. The size of the talents involved demands it, and the show has the gorgeous sheen of something that has its eyes on larger audiences. Director Jessica Stone has done beautifully detailed work, as has the entire design team, but it’s all stuff that should scale up well, and choreographer Danny Mefford could use a little more space for those triple lutzes in the ice-skating scene. When I realized the caliber and vector of what I was watching, I started to focus on the details I’ll miss when I see it again uptown. Fernell Hogan II, one of the romantically distracted chorus, rolls his eyes into his head with bliss when he sings about scurvy in science class; Cooley displays a wonderful “this is not bothering me” stillness whenever he senses that a situation is about to go south. Everything Clark does will read from the back of the second balcony — she has Broadway in her bones, and her poignancy will reach, probably, all the way from the Great White Way to Jersey. But Kimberly would want me to notice the little things. Like childhood, like life, that which is precious tends to vanish at a distance.
Kimberly Akimbo is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through through January 15.