By EDWARD RUBIN
Kimberly Akimbo, the newly penned musical with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Shrek the Musical) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) is the most loving, loveliest, and poignant theatrical experience of the year.
Starring the invincible Victoria Clark, whose every performance is pure gold (she won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for The Light in the Piazza in 2005), Kimberly Akimbo is currently gracing the stage at NYC’s Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through Saturday, January 15.
Set in the year 1999 somewhere in Bergen County, NJ before kids had cell phones (as the program informs us), this musical dramady follows the bizarre and quirky antics of a uber-dysfunctional family whose teenage daughter Kimberly Levaco (Victoria Clark) is suffering from a rare disease that causes her to age four and a half times faster than normal.
The play’s debut, with no music to its name, took its first bow in 2001 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Three years later –again without music – it moved to Manhattan Theater Club’s Off-Broadway venue at New York’s City Center.
In Abaire’s new version of Kimberly Akimbo, now gussied up for the delectation of theater going audiences with everything and the kitchen sink, the playwright has added several new characters, a couple of laugh-out-loud scenarios, and a clutch of songs whose lyrics and music seem to channel each character’s innermost thoughts.
Adding heart-touching gravitas to this production is the jarring fact that this story takes place on the eve of Kimberly’s sixteenth birthday, which Kimberly herself tells us, in both song and deed, that she knows that she is dying, as 16 is the age at which few people with her same disease live past.
What keeps us solidly riveted to the stage like a nail in wood is 62-year-old Clark’s luminous portrayal of the 16-year-old Kimberly, whose very looks, facial expressions, bodily movement, and knowingness appear to be that of a woman somewhere in her 60s.
This fast-aging fact which places the audience on watch is further driven home when Kimberly reminds her father who is worried about her burgeoning relationship with fellow schoolmate Seth, a tuba playing Justin Cooley making his New York debut, that he need not worry as “I went through menopause four years ago.”
Her father (Steven Boyd), though always trying to do his best for the family, is unreliable, frequently soused, and often forgetful. On the day of her momentous 16th birthday, most-likely on a bender, he is nowhere to be found.
Equally inattentive is Pattie (Alli Mauzey), Kimberly’s mother. Pregnant with her second child, she is worried about this next baby being born with the same disease as Kimberly. Narcissistic to the nth degree, and convinced that she is the one who is dying, she spends her time recording videos for her soon-to-be new baby to remember her by.
The hilarious sight gag here is that both of Pattie’s arms are heavily bandaged like that of a mummy due to a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, which leads to Kimberly, in a mother-child role reversal, of her having to feed her mother breakfast.
Supplying much of the play’s hilarity is Kimberly’s aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) a singer-comedian with a gigunda set of pipes that brings down the house in two, rousing fit-for-Broadway, show-stopping numbers.
An ex-con supposedly on the lam from the law, Debra, uninvited and only half welcome, is seen carting all her belongings, some through a window, into the basement of the Levaco family home.
The sight gag here, which gets a good laugh, is that she is dragging in, obviously stolen, a large blue postal mailbox behind her.
It is Debra’s over-the-top plan to enlist Kimberly and her schoolmates, Justin Cooley, Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander, and Nina White, in an illegal check-cashing scheme.
Her idea, played out in much detail, is to remove the name of the payee from the checks, add the names of the kids, and with the help of Kimberly posing as their grandmother, cash the checks in banks around town.
A few of the musical’s scenes played out at school and at the local skating rink, especially those involving the newly added singing and dancing school kids, comes across as needless throw-away time fillers.
Not so with the lovely bonding scenes between Kimberly and Seth, both one-of-a-kind loners who come from problematic homes.
From their very first tentative meeting, a kind Romeo and Juliet moment, we watch the fragrance of young love filling the air.
Soon Kimberly is singing” I like the way you look at life and think outside the box. A little odd. A little off. A bit unorthodox.”
One of Kimberly’s most bittersweet moments has her applying to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Here, Victoria Clark, pouring her heart out in song, has Kimberly asking for a tree house, a trip to anywhere, and to be like a normal kid.
As we leave the theater, we can’t but hope, since miracles have been known to happen, that Kimberly will far outlive her expected shelf life.
Cast: Victoria Clark (Kimberly), Justin Cooley (Seth), Olivia Elease Hardy (Delia), Fernell Hogan 11 (Martin), Nina White (Teresa), Michael Iskander (Aaron), Steven Boyer (Buddy), Alli Mauzey (Pattie), Bonnie Milligan (Debra)
Band: Music Director (Conductor/Piano) Chris Fenwick, Reed 1: Julie Pacheco, Reed 2: Greg Riley, Drums: Shannon Ford, Bass: Andrew Zinsmeister, Cello: Clara Kennedy
Technical: Set Design: David Zinn, Costume Design: Sarah Laux, Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design: Kai Harada, Projections: Lucy MacKinnon, Wigs, Hair & Makeup: J. Jared Janas, Music Contractor: Antoine Silverman, Orchestrations: John Clancy, Additional Orchestrations: Macy Schmidt, Production Stage Manager: Arabella Powell
Atlantic Theater Company’s Club’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori’s Kimberly Akimbo opened on Wednesday, December 8, 2021 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater at 336 West 20th Street New York City Center. It closes on Saturday, January 15. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission. For more information, or to buy tickets check out www.atlantictheater.org or call 212- 691- 5959.