The sweetest love scene on a New York stage right now doesn’t involve left bank bohemians, Orpheus and Eurydice, or even that monster with the mask on. Rather, it’s between a high school Ã¼ber-nerd who plays tuba and speaks Elvish and a girl who looks like her grandmother.
That’s because the daughter, Kimberly Levaco, born with a genetic disorder of aging related to progeria, appears to be in her 60s even though she just turned 16. In the fun and soulful new musical “Kimberly Akimbo”, which debuted on Wednesday in an Atlantic Production by the theater company at the Linda Gross Theater, Victoria Clark brings her to life so believably and beautifully that you find yourself looking for a kiss. that you might otherwise find scary.
It is not a surprise ; Clark, 62, is one of our great singing actresses, standing exactly where the two impossible arts intersect. Role after role – particularly as an anxious mother in “The Light in the Piazza”, for which she won a Tony Award in 2005 – she makes music not an afterthought on the character, but the thought she -same.
What is surprising is that “Kimberly Akimbo”, based on the 2000 play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire, achieves a similar feat. Unlike adaptations which do little more than nail some vocal Sheetrock to bare elements of a borrowed story and have much the same elegance, this one – with music by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire – remakes the original in new terms, with songs that tell us new things beautifully.
This is done without undue violence to the ingenious original premise, which makes comedy, as we all have to, tragedy. Kimberly is overwhelmed not only by an illness for which the average life expectancy is 16 years (“It’s only an average though,” she says happily) but also by a family that hasn’t treated her. as well as her.
Her mother, Pattie (Alli Mauzey), is ridiculously hypochondriac, as if to redeem the chromosomal crash that produced her rapidly aging child. Her father, Buddy (Steven Boyer), is irresistibly irresponsible, breaks his promises and gets drunk in amazement. Her Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) is a cheerful, amoral tornado of bad ideas who crouched down in Levaco’s basement to advance a counterfeit check plan. In a household filled with impulsive and appetizing childishness, Kimberly, who has to feed Pattie her morning cereal because both of her arms are in plaster, is the adult by default.
It’s this quality, more than her looks, that makes Kimberly an outcast at school. The upside is that it draws him to the must-see Seth, played in a terrific New York debut by 18-year-old Justin Cooley. Seth is very familiar with Premature Adulthood Syndrome: his widowed father barely notices, letting him figure out how to be a “good kid” (as one of his songs calls it) on his own. Recognizing this trait in each other, Seth and Kimberly bond over their parallel irregularities: his obsession with anagrams and its genetically scrambled codons.
Each of these subjects produces a wonderfully unexpected song that advances the plot while deepening characterizations. In the first, as Seth struggles to make an anagram of âKimberly Levaco,â his bizarre stab wounds on solutions (âMy olive blacker! My crab love!â) Point of view: âI love it. the way you see life and think outside the box, âshe sings. ” A little weird. A little behind. A little unorthodox.
And when students present science projects on diseases of their choice in a hilarious ensemble issue called “Our Disease,” Kimberly departs from the script she and Seth wrote on hers. Their classmates may have chosen scurvy and fascioliasis, but what they really suffer from is “a bad case of adolescence,” she sings. âGrowing old is my affliction. / Getting older is your remedy.
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These classmates (charmingly played by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White and Michael Iskander) are the most obvious addition to the musical, having been invented to provide a social context, a singing ensemble, and a broader humor. Less convincingly, Lindsay-Abaire links them to the story as accomplices in Aunt Debra’s forgery scheme; they hope to raise enough money to buy stunning costumes for a choir competition. Still, since it allows them to provide a backup for Milligan’s barn numbers, I won’t complain.
That Tesori can write any kind of music is old news. (For more proof, see “Caroline, or Change,” Now on Broadway.) What is evident in “Kimberly Akimbo” is that she can also write infallibly for any type of show. It mustn’t have been easy to find the right times and the right tone for the songs in a two-sided story like this, where every joke is also a memento mori, and vice versa. (One number is called “The Inevitable Turn”.) Its sound universe – comprising ukulele tunes, surprise double melodies, and an awesome pastiche – most closely resembles that of the musical “Shrek”, another collaboration with Lindsay -Abaire, but it takes its own inevitable turn, becoming richer and more ardent as the material demands it.
As his star demands too. I wish Clark had a bigger solo in the penultimate scene; at that point we won the right to a major statement from an interpreter capable of delivering it.
As long as we strive for excellence, I will add that âKimberly Akimboâ is not yet all it could be. The New Jersey setting is clearly and badly characterized, but the era, so-called 1999, is not; the father’s arch is not clearly inscribed; and using high school students to fill songs they don’t otherwise belong seems demotivated. Although sharp in its emotional details, Jessica Stone’s staging, on a vague setting by David Zinn and choreography by Danny Mefford, is physically undernourished. Skating rink scenes might as well be set in an empty mall, for all the action they offer.
But these are really minor complaints about a show getting so many important things so well. “Kimberly Akimbo” is already the rare example of a good play turned into an even better musical. It warms up the craziness of the original without going overboard and makes it “normal”. Instead of curling up as if embarrassed by the dimension music can bring to drama, she embraces the ability of song, even in tragicomedy, to spread emotion into larger realms.
And don’t let its sheer pleasure make you believe this is not a tragicomedy. To see an old man like Clark sparkle with a newcomer like Cooley is to feel how fast the world is spinning ahead. âNobody gets it a second time,â they sing in the finale (although âKimberly Akimboâ thankfully did). It could be an old-fashioned ‘carpe diem’ message – or a ‘crazy recipe’, as Seth might say – but in this case, lifted by exceptional craftsmanship, it makes a totally satisfying meal. .
Until January 2 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes.