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 Broadway’s Booth Theatre (after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run last fall at the Atlantic Theater).
Portrayed by the wondrous Victoria Clark in a Tony Award-worthy turn, Kimberly is a 16-year-old Bergen County resident in 1999 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 (despite trying to dress like them); she also acts older than they do. Indeed, Kimberly is painfully aware how their ordinary adolescent problems will be cured by the one thing she doesn’t have: time.
Much like the 2003 play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote both this show’s book and lyrics, neither of which shy away from some very naughty words), “Kimberly Akimbo” will have you laughing uproariously while sometimes crying inside.
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. Her varied score is consistently appealing and sometimes hilarious, even if it may not contain the kind of showstoppers found in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “Caroline, or Change.”
Credit also belongs to director Jessica Stone, who has expertly guided Clark and the entire eight-person cast through this tricky material, as well as the ingenious set designer David Zinn and costume designer Sarah Laux. 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 largely to Stone’s superb sense of pacing.
Furthermore, Clark’s often brash yet extremely touching performance wouldn’t work nearly as well if she didn’t have eight other fine actors to play opposite her. She plays particularly with Justin Cooley, who is remarkably bright-eyed as Kimberly’s nerdy, anagram-loving suitor Seth. While Seth is mostly a metaphoric ray of sunshine, we get to see his own moment of self-doubt in the excellent solo “Good Kid.”
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. A surprisingly complex character, played mostly for laughs, Debra loves her niece but also has no compunction about including Kimberly and her good-natured, clueless classmates (beautifully played by Olivia Bennett Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White and Michael Iskander) in her clearly illegal check-washing scheme.
Meanwhile, Steven Boyer is hilarious, if sometimes hateful, as Kimberly’s child-like, beer-swilling father Buddy, and Alli Mauzey is a hoot as her narcissistic, hypochondriacal, pregnant mother Patty. And while these three characters are less-than-noble (to put it mildly), their portrayers’ superb work ensures that we maintain at least a shred of sympathy for them.
But it’s Kimberly, not us, who must learn to forgive them and all their many trespasses before fulfilling her own destiny. Indeed, if there’s a lesson to be learned from “Kimberly Akimbo,” it’s that deciding one’s own fate is a truly heroic feat -- at any age.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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