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Kimberly Akimbo

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 8, 2021

Victoria Clark and Justin Cooley
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
How you'll respond to Atlantic Theater Company's new musical, Kimberly Akimbo, with a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori and direction by Jessica Stone, may depend on whether you saw the play of the same name at Manhattan Theater Club in 2003. If you didn't see the play, also by Lindsay-Abaire, you'll probably be delighted by Kimberly Akimbo's wacky story and tuneful score. But if you remember the original, you may be surprised by what you see onstage. Granted, it was almost twenty years ago that Marylouise Burke's hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of Kim won rave reviews and the play was heralded as one of the best of the season, despite its off-Broadway pedigree. But, while the Atlantic's new incarnation of Kimberly Akimbo has many charms, in the service of turning his play into a musical Lindsay-Abaire may have done serious damage to his wondrous original.

Chief among the musical's charms is the casting of the luminous Victoria Clark in the title role. Clark, who won a Tony for her achingly beautiful performance as a mother caring for a special needs daughter in The Light in the Piazza, ironically now finds herself portraying a special needs daughter in Kimberly Akimbo. This is because Kim suffers from a form of progeria syndrome, a genetic disorder which ages its victim at four and a half times the normal rate of development. In other words, as a young, 16-year-old girl Kim is physically an elderly woman of 72 trying to endure her emotionally dysfunctional family as her premature death approaches rapidly; 16 is the age at which most of the disease's victims die.

Obviously, the underlying subtext of Kimberly Akimbo, both the original play and this new musical, is that life is short, and we all need to savor the time we've been given. Lindsay-Abaire's play had a simplicity that was elegant, allowing the audience to focus on, and fall in love with, Marylouise Burke as Kim. But in turning his play into a musical, Lindsay-Abaire has opened up the story to allow for a chorus of four high school students, an on-stage skating rink, and gaudy production numbers, all of which bring only clutter, not clarity, to Jessica Stone's directorial vision for this incarnation. In interviews over the years, Stephen Sondheim often spoke about the thought process to use in determining when characters in a play would benefit from singing their emotions instead of speaking them. In other words, when does it makes sense to musicalize a property and when should you leave it alone? So, the question with a musicalized Kimberly Akimbo is whether having the characters sing their emotions makes the story more powerful. Does the singing bring new layers of depth and meaning to the story being told? The answer in this case is a qualified yes and no.

A Tony-winner for Fun Home (and whose Caroline, or Change is currently being revived at Roundabout's Studio 54), much of Jeanine Tesori's music for Kimberly Akimbo is ravishing, especially when it's sung by an artist as consummate as Victoria Clark. In addition to possessing a voice that's glorious, Clark is also a shrewd and gifted actress. She makes the most out of Kimberly's introspective songs ("Make A Wish" and "Anagram") and when Clark is singing, the musical soars. But then there are those pesky production numbers in the skating rink ("Skater Planet") and the basement ("How To Wash a Check"), all of which ring hollow and are just messy, despite the best efforts of Danny Mefford's choreography.

The four lovely high schoolers (Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White and Michael Iskander) also serve as a back-up chorus for Kimberly's crazy aunt Debra, played with zest by the sassy Bonnie Milligan (Head Over Heels). Milligan has a powerhouse belt and knows how to deliver a one-liner, but she also seems to be in a different production ("Better"). At times her charisma overwhelms the stage and threatens to overshadow Clark's nuanced performance. Justin Cooley is sweetly sympathetic as Kimberly's nerdy school friend Seth ("Good Kid"), and Steven Boyer (Hand to God), as Kimberly's alcoholic father Buddy ("Happy For Her"), and Alli Mauzey (Cry Baby), as Kimberly's self-obsessed mother Pattie ("Hello, Darling"), are solid, even if their songs are unnecessary. Sadly, both of Kim's parents remain two-dimensional ciphers.

Of special mention are the beautiful arrangements by John Clancy and Macy Schmidt, all of which are performed under the watchful eye of music director Chris Fenwick. The orchestra is superb. Also superb is the moving, photo-montage climax of Kimberly's road-trip with Seth, even if it's emotionally manipulative and geared to elicit tears and standing ovations. With Victoria Clark playing Kimberly, however, it's easy to forgive such calculations and shed a few tears along with her. But only a few.

Kimberly Akimbo
Atlantic Theater Company
Through January 2, 2022
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, NYC
Tickets online and current performance schedule: