Kimberly Akimbo Off Broadway Review: Ageless New Musical

It almost never happens to a novel, movie, or play when it’s turned into a musical. Typically, when songs are added, the narrative needs to be simplified, character motivations are reduced, and the original source material ends up compromised.

Something different happened to David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Kimberly Akimbo” about to become a new musical, which debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company on Wednesday. It’s still funny and quirky and very off-center, but the story of a rapidly aging 16-year-old and her dishonest family has been anchored. No, not based on some kind of high school. Jeanine Tesori’s music grounds the story in a way that gives the source a resonance, makes it more substantial and much more emotionally engaging.

Lindsay-Abaire writes the book and lyrics, which are just as clever as the jubilant, slang-laden dialogue of his original 2001 play. It also slightly expands the story to include a chorus of four high school friends including a lesbian. (Olivia Elease Hardy) who is interested in a straight girl (Nina White) who is interested in a gay boy (Fernell Hogan II) who is interested in a straight boy (Michael Iskander). Any problem Kimberly faces goes almost unnoticed in this “No Exit” rectangle of teenage hormones.

Almost unnoticed – except for the fact that Kimberly (Victoria Clark) has Methuselah syndrome and a tuba player (Justin Cooley) at school never seems to care that she looks like her grandmother. Clark’s performance is another big reason the musical seems more grounded than the play. Marylouise Burke is the originator of the role and brought her patented pixelated madness to the character. Clark’s performance is much more direct and devoid of mannerism. Kimberly is now an ordinary teenager trapped in the body of a much older person, and it is only through song that she can escape to be truly free. Unlike most new musicals based on previous material, the main character of “Kimberly Akimbo” has a reason to sing.

Stephen Sondheim freed musical artists to explore more adventurous subjects, such as the hyper-aging of a child. (When someone worries that Kimberly will get pregnant, the 16-year-old says not to worry: “I went through menopause four years ago.”) Given this freedom of topic, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori are based on very old rules. dating back to the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, if not earlier. At the start of the musical, Clark sings a classic What I Want Song, aptly titled “Make a Wish,” in which she allows herself to dream beyond the restrictions imposed by her body. Then, she and Cooley deliver a vintage conditional love song, titled “Anagram,” which, because it’s a pun, allows them to fall in love without having to admit it to themselves or even to themselves.

In 2003, when Tesori (with lyricist Tony Kushner) wrote the great “Caroline, or Change”, a number of critics diminished his talent, noting this composer’s penchant for pastiche. It’s good to remember that Sondheim was struck by the pastiche label when “Follies” was released in 1971. There are touches of R&B and country in “Kimberly Akimbo”, but that’s only because it ‘is the kind of music these characters grew up with, just as the characters in “Follies” exude the dazzling old showbiz tunes.

Kimberly Akimbo
(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

In the documentary “Six by Sondheim”, the late composer denounces the “hummable” melody and says that he wrote only one hit song, “Send in the Clowns”, which only became popular when Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.

Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire wrote their “Send in the Clowns”, and it’s the plaintive “Good Kid” lament, sung by Cooley between his tuba parts. The song will soon be the anthem at every high school graduation party. The only thing that will get popularity faster is Cooley himself. His Playbill bio reveals that he is “a musical theater student at Texas Christian University”. A student of musical theater ?! This young actor doesn’t just stand up to a great veteran like Clark, he is the perfect light comedic antidote to the extreme pathos induced by his performance.

Cooley is not alone in this department. Playing Kimberly’s drunken father and hypochondriac mother, Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey revel in their inspired madness while Clark, looking like their mother, is forced into that parenting role. An even taller, more mischievous child is Kimberly’s aunt on the run, who comes up with an ingenious ploy to make money as fast as it is illegal. With excellent orange jumpsuit material, Bonnie Milligan vividly embodies the first “Breaking Bad” character for the music scene. Unlike most other shows, musicals, and plays, Kimberly’s wicked family never gets better. They stay messy. David Zinn’s sets and Sarah Laux’s costumes depict this typical New Jersey environment with wit and simplicity.

Kimberly Akimbo

Former actress Jessica Stone directs “Kimberly Akimbo,” and it’s hard to think of a more auspicious New York stage debut for a director. That’s the other amazing thing about this production: The number of New York stage debuts includes not only his and Cooley’s, but three of the four college students who become Kimberly’s criminal partners. Hardy, Iskander and White look and act like real teenagers except for the fact that they are really talented. Only Hogan is a veteran of sorts, having starred in “The Prom” on Broadway. Each of them shines in a comical spectacle, which becomes very dark, entitled “Our disease”, in which the class duty is to report on an illness of the pupil’s choice. It brings you back to high school where growing up was the only way out. Except for someone like Kimberly.

Sondheim has never tired of writing a soft shoe number to let us know the whole world is a stage. “Kimberly Akimbo” ends with the exhilarating “Great Adventure” soft shoe to take her main character on the road. It’s a nice nudge and a tip of the hat for the master.

A final bravo: thank you to Laux for not putting the lesbian character in a sock cap. It is a real breakthrough in musical theater.

Kimberly Akimbo

Robert Hofler, TheWrap’s lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”, “Party Animals” and “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos”. His latest book, “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne”, is now in paperback.