Victoria Clark in ‘Kimberly Akimbo.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
By Matthew Wexler
Coming-of-age stories are as old as the theater itself, but if there is one contemporary composer who’s mastered that uncomfortable yet magnetic point in one’s life, regardless of when it lands, it’s composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet, Caroline, or Change). Her latest collaboration, Kimberly Akimbo, with lyricist and book writer David Lindsay-Abaire, will swell your heart to capacity.
Based on Abaire’s play of the same name, which premiered in 2000 at South Coast Repertory, this new reimagining follows the story of Kimberly Levaco, a soon-to-be 16-year-old who suffers from (according to an oral report she agrees to participate in with a classmate) “an incredibly rare genetic disorder in which several signs of aging are manifested at a very early age.”
The premise asks us to suspend our disbelief that 62-year-old Tony Award-winning actress Victoria Clark could be such a girl. And, oh, what an easy leap it is to make. Costumed by Sarah Laux in the most popular threads of the late 90s (at least according to East Bergen, NJ, standards, Clark’s to-the-bone performance is a transformation of both body and soul.
Not only is Kimberly grappling with impending death (most diagnosed don’t live past 16, she says), she also must parent her parents: a pregnant, hypochondriac mom (Alli Mauzey) and heavily drinking dad (Steven Boyer). Of course, a coming-of-age story wouldn’t be complete without a crush, but Abaire avoids the obvious, forgoing the football star for the quirky, tuba-playing Seth (Justin Cooley), who also happens to be “a member of The Junior Wordsmiths of America, an organization dedicated to the puzzleistic arts.” He turns her onto anagrams, and she letter-juggles her name into Cleverly Akimbo.
The natural order of things — aging, parental responsibility, first love — are also methodically jumbled in Kimberly Akimbo. A weight hangs in the air at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, reminding us that Kimberly is living on borrowed time. This makes the often unintentional micro-aggressions from those closest to her that much harder to bear. These aren’t of the class bully variety. In fact, the Greek-style chorus of four multicultural and sexually budding teens (portrayed with beautiful specificity by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Michael Iskander and Nina White) are caught up in their own daily trials and tribulations: new costumes for show choir and unrequited love among them.
Instead, these cutting verbal infractions slice quick like a paper cut and linger. Abaire reminds us that good people sometimes say bad things. And also that bad people can be very entertaining, such as Kimberly’s trouble-laden aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan). Her scheming and plotting (which involve a stolen mailbox, forged checks, and eliciting the help of Kimberly’s classmates) set in motion a series of bigger-than-reality events that unintentionally enable her niece to live — at least for a while — beyond the limitations of her circumstances.
Milligan’s electric voice, heard several seasons back in Head Over Heels and inexcusably not on Broadway since, brings some foul-mouthed levity that gives breath and space to the musical’s more poignant moments.
But it is Clark’s performance that will catch your breath: in one moment, chewing on a Smarties candy necklace, in another shrugging her shoulders in exasperation at Kimberly’s parents’ inability to act like responsible adults, or most endearingly, knotted up in a bean bag in a crushing display of attraction as her aging limbs betray her.
We’ve lost much since the world rewrote itself amid a global pandemic. Hope can seem distant or completely unattainable. But our capacity to live and love, regardless of the circumstances, is an indistinguishable fire. At least by Kimberly’s standards.
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street, NYC
Through January 2, 2022
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor.