A peculiar pleasure in watching Kimberly Akimbo comes from thinking the musical could not possibly pull off what it is trying to accomplish and being proved wrong. Somewhere in the first act, you get nervous, perhaps just about the degree of difficulty. The premise is at once straightforward and surreal: A 16-year-old girl is in high school in 1990s New Jersey, living with a rare disease (similar to progeria, though unnamed) that makes her age at four to five times the normal rate. Upon that, there are layers of absurdity: her kookily self-involved parents, a Greek chorus of classmates in show choir, her deliriously criminal aunt. By the time the script has introduced a plot involving check fraud, it seems nearly unstable. But then, it all syncs up, like a jumbled Rubik’s Cube solved with a few decisive spins, or — to invoke another device from the show — an anagram right at the moment where the rearranged letters fall into a new meaning. The chaos of Kimberly Akimbo clicks into place, and the show reveals that it’s been dealing in simple, unbearable truths all along.
To get there, you have to trust deeply in Victoria Clark, who plays 16 and 60-something all at once as Kimberly Levaco, embodying both ages by way of teenage upspeak that turns into a mature soprano when she sings. She appears before the audience munching on a candy necklace, adopting the gangly winsomeness of someone not quite at home in her body, a feeling, you realize, that belongs not only to adolescents. Her “I Want” song is in the form of a letter to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which, she acknowledges, will probably just pay for the least expensive of her three wishes. Her performance is built around the way a girl like Kimberly would bury her awareness of her fate deep within herself, a pressurized version of the way any teen girl tries so desperately to seem normal. The average life expectancy for someone with her disease is 16 — “It’s just an average, though!” she chirps to a classmate, not quite believing herself.
Kimberly tries hard not to think about her disease, and one of the tricks of the show is that, at least for a while, it allows its hero the dignity of making you forget about it, too. That’s where the curlicuing ridiculousness of the plot comes in: Kimberly’s parents, played by Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey, each working their own kind of vaudeville narcissism, keep referencing some incident back in Lodi, where they used to live, that’s the source of their woe. At school and the ice rink where the kids hang out afterward, Kimberly is surrounded by a quartet of goofballs who are all in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and who sing in perfect harmony about the woes of being stuck in lame old Nowhere, New Jersey (“in a town where there’s not much in / 40 minutes east of Hope / 40 miles from Metuchen”). Kimberly’s aunt Debra, played by Bonnie Milligan in full Broadway-reconquering mode after Head Over Heels, arrives midway through the first act with a scheme of her own. Milligan cannonballs into the action with such old-school charisma that the show briefly seems to start orbiting around her instead of Kimberly. As she sings about her motto of taking “the bull by the horns … and life by the balls,” that quartet of show-choir kids start providing backup vocals. By the top of the second act, she’s roped them into committing some light federal offenses with an instructional song titled “How to Wash a Check” — a far more practical life lesson for teens than “Do-Re-Mi” ever was.
When Kimberly Akimbo premiered Off Broadway last winter, Milligan’s performance was almost too big for the Atlantic Theater to contain, destined to fill a larger house. At the Booth, when she belts, her voice cuts straight to the balcony, and the show as a whole grows with her. Then, the musical felt like a glimmer of sunlight breaking through the winter of Omicron. In the Broadway run, that sun shines brighter and clearer — the show-choir costumes are shinier, Danny Mefford’s choreography has more room for ice-skating action, and set designer David Zinn has even deployed a revolve, though, delightfully, it’s used only to turn a dinner table. You miss the closeness to the actors, since director Jessica Stone has done such lovely work in getting the cast to capture the microgrimaces of high-school awkwardness, but the essential delicacy of the show is intact. It creeps up on you in Kimberly Akimbo’s more human-scale gestures, like the way Justin Cooley helps lift Victoria Clark out of a beanbag chair as a scene changes. Cooley plays Kimberly’s so-nerdy-he-speaks-Elvish love interest, Seth, a crucial grounding figure amid the looniness of the plot. He’s as recessive as Milligan is aggressive. He will make you laugh with his delivery of the word “tuba,” and then make you mist up while he’s blatting away on one.
David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own play from 2001, and Jeanine Tesori, providing the music, seem to revel in the difficulty of what they’re doing here, letting the action spool out as broad as a cartoon, and then snapping it back into digital-camera sharpness. The show’s sound ranges from imitation Jersey rock to show-tune grandeur to folkie twee — a ukulele pops up in the finale, somehow not cloying. Tesori can write crowd-pleasing earworms (the teens chanting “Our disease!” in their bio presentation will stick with you), and Lindsay-Abaire delights in bits of lexical showiness (that song deploys the word “fasciolosis”). But they also know when to write something more halting and introspective, as with Kimberly’s soliloquies or her mother and father’s recordings into a video camera for their next child. Those twist in the wind and, just when they catch a tune, wander elsewhere. Like Sondheim, Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire can craft the sound of people thinking.
The gears of Kimberly Akimbo turn in time with that thought process. Watch Victoria Clark’s face, in the second act, during a scene where her classmates daydream about their futures and she ponders her lack of a future. They see the boring travails of high school as the thing to get through before real life begins, whereas she won’t have an adulthood to grow into. There, the overwhelming present tense of the show — the way it seems to pile on comedy and whimsy and crime and bar bets about stuffing a whole mango in your mouth — makes devastating sense. Kimberly Akimbo must bend toward darkness without overstressing the gloom. We know what will happen to Kimberly as soon as the clock ticks forward just a bit more. To not think about her future is both a distraction and a gift. It’s reckless denialism and the stuff of being alive. “Father Time / Slow down the day,” Kimberly’s mother sings in a lullaby that recurs with greater poignancy near the end of the show, “Please let the sun stay / And we’ll be all right.”
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