“Kimberly Akimbo” arrives on Broadway with its terrific cast and quirkiness intact. What’s best about this musical remains – above all, the slowly unfolding oddball relationship between two high school misfits, and the wonderful performances by the actors who portray them.
Victoria Clark, a Tony winning Broadway veteran, is Kimberly Levaco, a 16-year-old girl with a rare, terminal disease that accelerates the aging process, making her look as if she’s in her seventies. Justin Cooley, a teenager who is making an impressive Broadway debut, is Seth Weetis, Kimberly’s nerdy classmate, who plays the tuba, likes to speak Elvish from “Lord of the Rings” and is a card-carrying member of the Junior Wordsmiths of America, obsessed with anagrams. He rearranges the letters in Kimberly’s name to come up with: “Cleverly Akimbo.”
That remains a good two-word summary of this musical with a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. Lindsay-Abaire has gotten a lot of mileage out of this story: One of the first original musicals to open last year in New York after the pandemic lockdown, “Kimberly Akimbo” was adapted from his 2003 non-musical play of the same name. It now has transferred from Off Broadway to Broadway’s Booth, a theater four times bigger than last year’s venue, with the top ticket price twice as high.
The show is banking on Broadway theatergoers sharing the same taste as last year’s Off Broadway audiences for a wildly whimsical jumble of dark subject matter and troubled characters, which navigates between comic and poignant. I personally would have welcomed more than the few changes I could discern – there is a new, better song as the Act 1 finale; the set is a bit more elaborate and moves more smoothly into place; there’s a different lighting designer; and cast member Michael Iskander’s hair is longer.
Set in 1999, the show begins in a skating rink in Bergen county, New Jersey (the sort of place teenagers hung out in before there were cell phones), and the song “Skater Planet,” the first of Tesori’s 17 melodies. Seth, who works at the rink, sings:
Shoes are stinky.
Pay’s not great.
but I can’t skate
Kimberly, crunching on a candy necklace, sings that she’s the new girl “in Buttcrack Township”
so I get to start from scratch.
Next to Lodi, this is dreamy.
Sure, tonight I’m getting looks,
but tomorrow they might see me.
A quartet of skating teenagers sing:
All the action’s at the mall,
but we’d rather be here skating.
And then individually, each sings
I’m with the one I love,
but my love goes unrequited.
Which is our introduction to their love relay: Aaron (long-haired Michael Iskander) has a crush on Delia (Olivia Elease Hardy),who has a crush on Teresa (Nina White), who has a crush on Martin (Fernell Hogan), who has a crush on Aaron.
Seth and Kimberly talk for the first time outside the skating rink, while she waits for her father Buddy to pick her up. Buddy is three and a half hours late. We soon realize that Kim’s the one taking care of her family rather than the other way around. They are each in their own dysfunctional — her father Buddy (Steven Boyer) a drunk, her mother Pattie (Alli Mauzey), a hypochondriac pregnant with her second child, her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan), a frequently imprisoned scam artist.
Over the course of the musical, all nine characters get their moments to shine. To do this, Lindsay-Abaire created several subplots – one involves Debra enlisting the high school kids in scam involving an uprooted mailbox and a stolen photocopying machine — and Tesori composed musical numbers on eclectic subjects in a range of genres. Here, for example, is Bonnie Milligan singing “Better”
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…. ‘Cause who the fuck wants lemons
Yet, the musical might have benefited from paring the various subplots. The problem for me is not primarily the odd pairing of zany comedy with trauma and tragedy (and criminality.) But add up all these moments and they threaten to overwhelm or at least distract from the heart of “Kimberly Akimbo” — Kimberly and Seth.
When they talk to one another for the first time, Seth is insensitive, asking Kim to be his partner in the assignment they have in biology class to do a presentation on a disease, because they could do her disease, which she surely knows a lot about. At first she says no ( “Kim’s doing glaucoma,” Buddy snaps) but she eventually agrees, setting up the scene and song “Our Disease,” which is hilarious, but 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.
Kimberly will not get much older, a cold fact that lays a tacit sorrow beneath the exuberance that she and Seth display – fanciful, sure, but Clark and Cooley — Victoria and Justin — make it sweet and funny and oh-so-touching.
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $84 – $268
Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire based on his play, music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Jessica Stone
Choreography 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, video design by Lucy Mackinnon, music direction by Chris Fenwick, orchestrations by John Clancy, , hair and makeup design by Jared Janas
Cast: Victoria Clark, Justin Cooley, Steven Boyer, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, and Nina White.