By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
As a teenager growing up in Bergen County, I often felt older than my peers. But my plight hardly compares to the one suffered by Kimberly Levaco, the center of the brilliant new musical Kimberly Akimbo, now at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater.
Portrayed by the wondrous Victoria Clark in an award-worthy turn, Kimberly is a 16-year-old Bergen County resident in 1999, albeit one who suffers from a rare disease in which her body ages four times faster than normal, often causing death by, yes, the age of 16. Unsurprisingly, Kimberly not only looks drastically older than her peers; she also acts older than they do, painfully aware how their ordinary adolescent problems will be cured by the one thing she doesn’t have: time.
Back in 2003, when I originally saw David Lindsay-Abaire’s mordantly funny play, on which the musical is based, I never imagined it would be musicalized. But the playwright (who wrote both this show’s book and lyrics, neither of which shy away from some very naughty words) has created a theatrical work that will have you laughing uproariously while sometimes crying inside. And although the script still has the kooky charm of the original as well as its poignancy, it admittedly feels a tad less dark than it did before.
Of course, Lindsay-Abaire has had the help of many top-notch collaborators in bringing new life to the piece, most notably, the great composer Jeanine Tesori, whose melodic score is among her best, and director Jessica Stone, who has expertly guided Clark and the entire cast through this tricky material. And unlike some other recent musicals, this one doesn’t feel overlong, even though it clocks in at just under two-and-a-half hours, thanks to Stone’s superb pacing.
Furthermore, Clark’s often brash, often touching performance wouldn’t work nearly as well if she didn’t have these eight other fine actors to play opposite her, Newcomer Justin Cooler is remarkably bright and appealing as Kimberly’s nerdy, anagram-loving suitor Seth, and nimbly holds his own opposite his Tony Award-winning co-star. Meanwhile, Olivia Bennett Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White and Michael Iskander are utterly believable as her good-natured, if often-clueless, classmates.
On the adult side of the equation, the big-voiced Bonnie Milligan almost walks off with the show as Kimberly’s amoral, larger-than-life aunt Debra, Steven Boyer is hilarious as Kimberly’s child-like, beer-swilling father Buddy, and Alli Mauzey is a hoot as her narcissistic, hypochondriacal mother Patty. And while these three characters are less-than-noble (to put it mildly), their portrayers’ superb work ensures that we maintain some sympathy for them.
Most of all, it’s Kimberly who must learn to forgive – or at least ignore — all their many trespasses (and there are many!) before fulfilling her own destiny. Indeed, if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that deciding one’s own fate is a truly heroic feat. As for the ultimate fate of Kimberly Akimbo, I won’t be surprised if it turns out to be Broadway!
Kimberly Akimbo continues through January 15 at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). Run time: 2 hrs. 20 min. Visit atlantictheater.org or call 646-989-7966 for tickets and information.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster