Kimberly Levaco is a 16-year-old girl with a rare, terminal disease that accelerates the aging process, and makes her look as if she’s in her 70s. Seth Weetis is her nerdy, smiling classmate, who plays the tuba, likes to speak Elvish from “Lord of the Rings” and is obsessed with anagrams; he rearranges the letters in Kimberly’s name to come up with: “Cleverly Akimbo.” That is not a bad two-word description of the show that the characters are in, “Kimberly Akimbo,” an off-beat, and off-balanced, new musical by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, adapted from Lindsay-Abaire’s play of the same name, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2003.
Kimberly and Seth are both misfits, who find out they fit together. The awkward, wry, tacitly sorrowful but explicitly exuberant relationship that slowly develops is the heart of the musical. The droll, touching, beautifully sung performances by the actors who portray them – Victoria Clark, the 62-year-old, Tony-winning Broadway veteran, and Justin Cooley, who at 18 is making an impressive Off-Broadway debut – makes the heart beat sweetly.
But while Tesori smoothly incorporates into the story 18 serviceable melodies, paired with Lindsay-Abaire’s memorable lyrics, the creative team has also made some choices that expand the piece in ways that don’t quite fit with the misfits.
Kim was born into a family whose members are so childishly self-involved that Kim winds up taking care of them, rather than the other way around. Her mother Pattie (Alli Mauzey) is a narcissistic hypochondriac, pregnant with a second child, who is busy making videotapes for her, because she dramatically declares she expects to die soon after giving birth. She meanwhile neglects her first child, who is certain to die soon; average life expectancy for Kim’s (unnamed) disease is 16. Kim’s father Buddy (Steven Boyer) is a drunk, who forgets his only daughter’s birthday. Her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) is a scam artist who is in and out prison, and virtually breaks into the Levaco household to squat in their basement. The three of them share a secret – the reason why they abruptly moved out of Secaucus, N.J. to an unnamed community in Bergen County that Seth dismisses as “Buttcrack Township.” The cartoonishly horrible secret, which is kept from Kim (and the audience) until late in the show, is revealed in a song called “The Inevitable Turn,” which starts out with all three of them trying hard to be on their best behavior – something that inevitably never lasts.
Seth also has a less than ideal homelife; his mother died, his father (whom we don’t meet) has checked out on him.
Seth starts talking to Kim outside the skating rink where he works, where after skating she has waited three hours for Buddy to show up to drive her home. The play is purposefully set in 1999, before teens had cell phones, and therefore still socialized in places like skating rinks and school libraries. With her hair worn long secured with a barrette, a floppy outfit of a dress worn over blue jeans, a backpack, hunched shoulders, and a goofy-friendly expression, it’s uncanny how much Clark as Kim looks like the real teen’s peer. He asks her whether she would consider being his partner in the assignment they have in biology class to do a presentation on a disease. He suggests they could do hers. “I thought it’d be a good choice, since you probably know everything and would be the perfect source of info,” he says, an example of the playwright’s unerring ear, in this case for the earnest, insensitive way a nebbishy adolescent would talk.
“Pick someone else,” Buddy snaps unpleasantly. “Kim’s doing glaucoma.”
But Kim eventually agrees. The song that results, “Our Disease,” is one of the many moments that justify turning the play into a musical. It is hilarious. But ultimately it is also poignant. In an aside meant to be her unspoken thoughts, Kim sings:
is a bad case of adolescence…
[With its] over-concern about a science grade [and] who’s getting laid
… a tough one, that’s for sure.
Getting older is my affliction.
Getting older is your cure.
It’s not just Seth and Kim who give a presentation of a disease in the song. The musical has added four other teenage characters. They are portrayed winningly by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander, and Nina White. All these characters are members of their school choir, which is clever, because they occasionally serve as the chorus in the songs.
But these teenage characters are also part of two subplots that take us away from the core story.
The first could be called a love relay: Aaron has a crush on Delia, who has a crush on Teresa, who has a crush on Martin, who has a crush on Aaron. These attractions are hinted at whenever the characters speak, though never given full focus, and they are resolved in a way that is little more than a cheap joke – the resolution is not believable, but worse, it feels unfair to the characters.
Debra also enlists the four in her latest scam, which involves uprooting a USPS mailbox, stealing a bulky photocopying machine and setting up a makeshift lab. It is an elaborate and farcical check fraud scam, with these teenagers agreeing to become involved in order to get enough money to buy the costumes for which the school refuses to give them the budget.
Lindsay-Abaire is a playwright who has authored both the heart-wrenching, Pulitzer-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” about a couple’s reaction to the death of their child, and the book for “Shrek the musical” on Broadway. He can do zany; he can do sad. Jeanine Tesori also worked on “Shrek,” and won the Tony for “Fun Home.” (She also wrote the songs in”Caroline, or Change,” a revival of which is currently on Broadway.) A sign that they and director Jessica Stone want “Kimberly Akimbo” to lean more toward the zany is their casting of Steven Boyer (who was the eccentric puppeteer, and puppet, in “Hand to God”) and Bonnie Milligan (who won fans for her breakout performance in “Head Over Heels.”) Milligan is a powerhouse comic performer, a scene-stealer as the blunt vulgar criminal, who makes the most of such funny, subversive lyrics as “When life gives you lemons… you’ve got to go out and steal some apples.”
I suppose I can’t fault the creative team for wanting wacky comedy; it’s entertaining. But I couldn’t help feeling at times that they, like the families of Kim and Seth, don’t fully realize how terrific these two teenage characters are; and how much more care and attention they deserve.
Atlantic Theater Company through January 15, 2022
Tickets: $101.50 – $131.50
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tesori
based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire
choreographed by Danny Mefford
Directed by Jessica Stone
Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, sound design by Kai Harada, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon, music direction by Chris Fenwick, music contractor Antoine Silverman, orchestrations by John Clancy, additional orchestrations by Macy Schmidt, hair and makeup design by Jared Janas,
Cast: Steven Boyer, Victoria Clark, Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, and Nina White.
Photographs by Ahron R. Foster