Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Kimberly Akimbo

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 10, 2022

Kimberly Akimbo. Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Choreographed 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. Hair, wig, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Video design by Lucy Mackinnon. Orchestrations by John Clancy. Additional orchestrations by Macy Schmidt. Music coordinator Antoine Silverman. Music director Chris Fenwick.
Cast: Victoria Clark, Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Nina White, Michael Iskander, Steven Boyer, Alli Mauzey, and Bonnie Milligan.
Theater: Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Victoria Clark, Justin Cooley, and Steven Boyer
Photo by Joan Marcus
Let me tell you about this show opening tonight at the Booth Theatre, a musical starring an actress in her 60s who plays a teenage girl nearing the end of her life. It also features the girl's alcoholic father, her narcissistic mother, and her larcenous aunt. I mean, what's not to like? Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, it is the most upbeat, crowd-pleasing, life-affirming, enjoyably funny, and heartwarming musical to hit the scene in a very very long time. It is called Kimberly Akimbo, and it is a gift of theater love that is not to be missed.

Before I go off the deep end in singing the praises of its wonderful cast, let me begin by placing laurel wreaths upon the heads of the creative team of David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). These two, who previously collaborated on Shrek the Musical, should write together forever. Their work here is seamless. And that's a big deal, because Kimberly Akimbo the musical is based on an earlier play with the same title, also written by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire. Reworking it into another form through a collaborative process sets a high bar for both playwright and composer. But whatever they did to make it happen, the new blend of song and script is smooth as silk and smart and clever as the dickens, never more so than when they play around with techniques that are often used in musicals.

To give an example, it is fairly typical in a musical to have the lead performer sing an "I wish" or "I want" song early on, something to set the plot in motion. But when have you ever before heard an "I wish" song in the form of a letter to the actual Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes for critically ill children?

That's what Kimberly Levaco (a glorious Victoria Clark, who portrays a teenage girl better than most teenage girls) does when we are just getting used to the idea that a 16-year-old high schooler is being played by an actress four times her age. The reason for that is, Kimberly has a very rare genetic disorder that puts the aging process into overdrive. Sadly, the average lifespan for those carrying this disorder is the same age as our heroine, though, as she optimistically points out, "it's just an average."

Another example relates to the way in which exposition is handled. Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori do not try to clumsily hide it (e.g., by interrupting the show in order for one character to explain something to another, when it is obvious that the information is being passed along for the sake of the audience). Instead, their use of exposition is blatantly incorporated into songs whenever it is needed.

Nina White, Bonnie Milligan, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander,
and Olivia Elease Hardy

Photo by Joan Marcus
My favorite is a number in which the students in Kimberly's science class are doing their presentations about a disease they have researched. After pairs of them sing about "scurvy" and "fasciolosis," it is time for Kimberly and her partner Seth (Justin Cooley, a thoroughly adorable nerd) to do their presentation about her disease. Exposition is not only handled with great finesse, but, in this case, it is smartly held off until later in the show, after we have had the chance to adjust to the overall tone of gently dark humor. It also manages to move things forward by becoming one of the few times when Kimberly reveals the emotional toll that she mostly keeps hidden.

The sort of humor that permeates the show (think Christopher Durang, but not nearly so biting) comes out not only in the performances, but in David Zinn's simple, sometimes cartoonish, movable set design. Or in props, like a mailbox being dragged across the floor and down a flight of stairs (don't ask!). It all is meant to soften the blow, so that we don't think too deeply about Kimberly's plight but soar with her as she learns to relish the time she does have left. In doing so, she is able to move past her unreliable parents: her alcoholic man-child of a father Buddy (Steven Boyer) and her self-absorbed pregnant mother Pattie (Alli Mauzey) who, when her focus isn't entirely on herself, spends her time making a video for her unborn child, the one she is convinced will be healthy. Both actors are excellent, managing to find the perfect spot between casually neglectful and outlandishly laughable.

And then there's Aunt Debra, Allie's miscreant sister, played to a showstopping turn by Bonnie Milligan. Even within the loose structure of the plot, the character of Debra is an odd addition, perhaps someone who might be mentioned but who would be unlikely to come bursting in through the door (or, in this case, the window). Yet in Milligan's hands, Debra is a force of nature, a hurricane that tears through the household and an indispensable addition to the show. An unrepentant and frequent perpetrator of low crimes and misdemeanors, she enlists Kimberly and some of her school friends (Seth and a quartet referred to as the "Show Choir," wonderfully played by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Nina White, and Michael Iskander) into a check-stealing scheme. Somehow everything goes wrong, and then everything goes right, until we float out of the theater on a cloud of high spirits carried by a perfect closing number, titled "Great Adventure."

Having gushed until I am pretty much gushed out, let me save this last bit for director Jessica Stone, who has led the outstanding cast through a very special journey that has taken the show to Broadway from its previous run at the Atlantic Theater Company's Off-Broadway Linda Gross Theater. It deserves a long stay at its new home. Kimberly Akimbo works a special kind of magic, one that takes an underlying sad tale and spins it around to find all the laughter, love and joy that anyone possibly could wish for.