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Kid Victory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 22, 2017

Photo by Carol Rosegg
From the Nazi occupation of Germany (Cabaret) and the toxic relationship between murder and celebrity (Chicago) to tortured sexuality amid just plain torture (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and even institutional racism in the South (The Scottsboro Boys), composer John Kander has never had trouble making dark subject matter sing in his musicals. Yet one wonders in watching Kid Victory, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, whether this time he hasn't tackled a topic even he can't breathe levity into. The subject of the show he's written with librettist-lyricist Greg Pierce: child abduction and molestation, and its at-times bloodier aftermath.

Chances are, your toes are not already tapping. The story before the story here is that the adolescent Luke was kidnapped by an unemployed history teacher he met while playing a boat racing game called Regatta 500, and literally imprisoned (with chains and everything) in the man's home for a year. After breaking away from his captor Michael, via a process we only gradually see, Luke returns to Kansas to live with his devoutly religious parents, only to find that they, his church, his girlfriend Suze, and everything else around him no longer support—or for that matter understand—the very different man his harrowing experiences have made of him.

This new Luke takes a job with Emily, a "wrong side of the tracks" woman; flirts with men he meets online; and rejects his parents' faith and their attempts to treat him as the boy he used to be. There's plenty of room for exploring these and other ways Luke's mind and heart have evolved over his year "away," showing how psychologically rich the premise is. In Kid Victory, there might be too much of this good thing.

Musicals (the good ones, anyway) use song and dance to fill in gaps in the narrative and emotional lives of their characters, and elevate them beyond what our mere senses might ordinarily perceive. A favorite technique of Kander and his longtime writing partner Fred Ebb was to view key emotions and incidents through a performative gloss, commenting on them on one level while adding a neo-Brechtian level of distance with the other, though the ultimate outcome was in most cases the same. Cabaret needs its jaggedly integrated Kit Kat Klub numbers to show how the world of Weimar Germany is turning around the honest people locked within it; without the cynical vaudeville turns demonstrating how we let fame control our perceptions, Chicago would not be Chicago.

Kander couldn't get away with that here, and thankfully didn't try, but he and Pierce (who previously collaborated on The Landing at the Vineyard in 2013) don't present a convincing case as to why this material needs to sing at all. As always, Kander's melodies are creamy, clever, and twisty, at times downright addictive; and Pierce's lyrics, if rarely poetic, are professional and appropriate. The combine in the de rigueur hymns for the churchfolk, the plaintive cries from a mom who's seeing her boy slip away for a second time, down-to-earth conversations between Luke and Emily that reveal their inner turmoil, romantic flashbacks to happier times with Suze, and, most chillingly, the frantic history lessons with Michael that are a tumble of sound, motion (the choreography is by Christopher Windom) and disorienting information. But none of it says anything that nonmusical scenes couldn't do at least as well, if not also quicker and more thoughtfully.

More entertainment-oriented pieces, like "Plain White Card" for a frustrated customer at Emily's garden store, or "What's the Point?", an honest-to-goodness bouncy tap specialty for Luke's potential date, land more naturally. (The delightful, low-key orchestrations are by Michael Starobin.) It shouldn't be that way—we should find these as unrelatable as Luke does. It doesn't matter if the smaller chunks can be musicalized if the meat of the matter, what it means to be robbed of your life and have your personality reprogrammed over months of violent and humiliating abuse, can't be—and it can't. It also doesn't help that Luke doesn't sing; this may successfully alienate him from those around him, but limits how far we're able to dig into who he is. Everyone, including the odious Michael, becomes more real than Luke does, which is, shall we say, suboptimal. (Luke "learning" how to sing again over the course of the show, though, would not be a terrible idea.)

Liesl Tommy's production is slick, fluidly staged as a swift-running stream of consciousness on a handsomely cluttered unit house set by Clint Ramos. (The fine costumes are by Jacob A. Climer; David Weiner did the unsettling lights.) And the cast is largely excellent, with the highlights Brandon Flynn, who's beautifully on the edge as Luke; Karen Ziemba just right as his eggshell-walking mom; Daniel Jenkins appropriately resigned as the in-between dad; and Jeffry Denman as the oozy, creepy, strangely alluring Michael. None of them does anything wrong, which ensures that the proceedings are professional throughout and not once boring.

Being not boring and being transformative are two very different things, however, and Kid Victory does not come close to the latter. It proves that there's theatrical value in telling this tale; the instantaneous transitions between now, then, safety, captivity, love, and hatred could not work as well in any other medium—only in the theatre can they all comfortably occupy the same place at the same time. But those qualities need to grow broader as well as deeper if they're to touch us enough for our souls to feel as bruised and battered as Luke's, a process the singing and dancing interrupt rather than complement. The problem in Kid Victory isn't that so much is dark. It's that so much is light.

Kid Victory
Through March 19
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix