The prospect of dying by age 16 hardly seems like obvious fodder for musical comedy. But “Kimberly Akimbo,” transferring to Broadway after an acclaimed run at the Atlantic Theater Company, is the sort of refreshingly unexpected musical that makes an exhilarating case for the vibrancy and potential of the form. It asks big questions about family and mortality. It’s unabashedly heartfelt and irresistibly funny. Like life, it’s inherently sad and a little absurd, and like its subject, “Kimberly Akimbo” is exceedingly rare and almost impossible not to love.
The trials of being a teenager can feel like matters of life and death, but Kimberly Levaco is actually running out of time — and her feelings about it have nothing to do with hormones. A genetic disorder that accelerates her aging process means she’s going on 16, but with the body of someone four times older. Despite Kimberly’s imminent end, or perhaps because of it, there is a self-consciously jovial and youthful tone to the material, based on the 2000 play by David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the book and lyrics, and with music by Jeanine Tesori. It’s a bit like an amusement park ride: Half the fun is knowing your heart is about to get drop-kicked.
The title character proves a magnificent showcase for a knockout turn from Victoria Clark (a Tony winner for “The Light in the Piazza”), striking a delicate balance in a tightrope acting challenge. How do you play a kid as an adult without coming off as false, affected or, worst of all, cutesy? The answer is evident in everything from how Clark seems to wade inside a denim overall dress (by designer Sarah Laux) to the way she makes even her features appear unsettled and still on the brink of maturity. Her operatic voice is modulated here, to fit the artless grace of a girl whose biggest wish is for her family to get along and to feel wanted. It’s the kind of performance whose subtlety nearly masks its brilliance, but the feat that Clark carries off is no less than astonishing.
Aside from Kimberly’s condition, the story is in many ways a familiar one. It’s 1999 in suburban New Jersey, and mom (Alli Mauzey) and dad (Steven Boyer) are both narcissists, neglectful of Kimberly even as they care for her in their own messed up ways. Mom is pregnant again, and makes no secret that she hopes this one turns out differently (i.e. normal), while dad is an alcoholic font of false promises. Still, they are not easy villains, but flawed, well-intentioned and mired in their own issues — in other words, parents. Mauzey and Boyer are both appealingly awful, witty and human in ways that are insensitive without being cruel.
As Kimberly’s criminal aunt, Bonnie Milligan is the musical’s raging comedic force, commanding laughs with the authority and efficiency of a drill sergeant. Her every move and line reading is like a test of whether the audience can keep from cracking up. It’s a blast to see a performer so in control of her talents, especially as she plays Pied Piper to the musical’s young ensemble, show-choir nerds desperate for cash to make flashy costumes. And wouldn’t you know, she has a money-making scheme right up her sleeve?
A romantic plot for Kimberly, who might otherwise die having never been kissed, is a tricky one to finesse given the optics of her age compared to her classmates. But Justin Cooley, who plays her lab partner and eventual admirer, delivers another of the show’s breakout performances. A tuba player who also works at the local ice rink, he’s a connoisseur of anagrams, the verbal equivalent of finding unexpected ways to look at the world — a neat encapsulation of the show’s guiding principle.
“Kimberly Akimbo” wraps its profound emotional core inside the colorful and exuberant surfaces of a YA comedy, an affecting juxtaposition reflective of its title character. The production, directed by Jessica Stone, has the sweet and earnest vibe of an especially well-executed school project, particularly when it comes to the quartet of drama nerds (whose symmetrically unrequited crushes are a bit too pat). The staging’s mood and aesthetic, with set design by David Zinn and lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, lend a playful veneer to a show that ultimately looks death straight in the eye.
Lindsay-Abaire, whose previous work includes “Rabbit Hole,” about a couple mourning the death of their son and for which he won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a nimble cartographer of the ties that bind families together and the devastating distances that keep them apart. Who hasn’t felt they’re not the version of themselves their parents dreamed of? And who doesn’t wonder about roads not taken and slouch with regret? A Tony winner for “Fun Home,” Tesori is brilliantly inventive in finding new ways for music to express who people are and how they feel. Her score has a folksy buoyancy that gives way to softer, more intimate reflections that reveal what makes each character tick. They want what nearly everyone does — love, adventure and a sense of life having been worth living.
In a field crowded with fan service, from jukebox juggernauts to dutiful (and often dull) movie remakes, “Kimberly Akimbo” is an exception — one that proves musicals can be deeply strange and spirited, and can challenge audiences to see things from another point of view. Now, isn’t that a worthwhile way to spend our limited time on Earth?
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