By Stanford Friedman
David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, supply the clever words and music for Kimberly Akimbo, a truly fantastic and highly weird take on family, friends and fate, premiering at the Atlantic Theater. This is a duo who know a thing or two about tricky relationships. Together, they explored the budding love of ogres in Shrek, The Musical. Apart, Tesori composed the powerhouse scores behind the difficult family ties of Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, while Lindsay-Abaire authored the bruising parent traps, Rabbit Hole and Fuddy Meers.
Now, in their latest collaboration, based on Lindsay-Abaire’s 20-year-old straight play of the same name, they juggle so many eccentric character traits and storylines it feels as if the show could tumble apart at any second. But, behind the fearless direction of Jessica Stone, a game-for-anything cast captures that loopy energy and transforms it into a cruel yet kind, heartbreaking but silly tragi-romp through the wilds of Bergen County, New Jersey.
It’s the type of show where an April snowfall portends a topsy turvy world full of entertaining distractions like an ensemble number performed on ice skates, a tuba solo and an ode to scurvy. Set in 1999, the story is centered around a high school girl named Kimberly (Victoria Clark). Like every 15-year-old, she just wants to fit in with her friends and have something resembling a normal life at home. But unlike every 15-year-old, Kimberly suffers from an aging disease that gives her the appearance of a 72-year old and a life expectancy that suggests her upcoming birthday will be her last.
A meaty, tragic irony like that provides plenty of material for the creative team to carve up and explore. First of all, her parents are as childish as Kimberly is mature. Buddy (Steven Boyer) is usually more interested in his Game Boy and in his drinking than in his daughter. Patti (Alli Mauzey) is very pregnant with her second child and has both her forearms in casts having recently had surgery for a repetitive stress injury. She spends her free time making a video diary for her unborn kid, rather than caring for her struggling teen. Add to the mix, Kimberly’s aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan), a larceny loving ball of fire who intrudes on the family, harboring the secret that drove the family out of their former home in Secaucus (Trigger warning: New Jersey jokes come fast and furious throughout the night.). Milligan blows open the first act, belting a killer number that has Debra explaining how criminal activity makes her “shitty life better.”
Kimberly’s school chums are sympathetic to her plight and quite entertaining in their own right. Seth (Justin Cooley, charming) an anagram-loving nerd who speaks Elvish is her love interest, while a quartet of other pals all have crushes on each other, blind to who is really attracted to whom. The gang spend much of the second act involved in an absurd, felonious scheme cooked up by Debra that seems to teach that passing bad checks is a good idea, and that crazy subplots can succeed if enough talent is in the mix.
Kimberly, meanwhile, has moments of realization that crush her, and us, not once, but twice. When her bedroom is transformed to a nursery, it becomes clear how ready her parents are to move on. And when she realizes that growing older, for her friends, is the cure to their high school “purgatory,” the opposite result of the disease that plagues her, it ultimately drives her to a live-for-the-day mentality that offers as happy an ending as possible under the circumstances. Clark, who is four times older than the character she portrays, is ideally cast. Her eyes sparkle with youth while her body, smartly costumed by Sarah Laux, strolls and dances with a fragile grace. It’s a down to earth performance that elevates this quirky enterprise to surprising heights.
Kimberly Akimbo – Words by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Jessica Stone.
WITH: Steven Boyer (Buddy), Victoria Clark (Kinberly), Justin Cooley (Seth), Olivia Elease Hardy (Delia), Fernell Hogan II (Martin), Michael Iskander (Aaron), Alli Mauzey (Pattie), Bonnie Milligan (Debra), and Nina White (Teresa).
Choreographed by Danny Mefford, Scenic Design: David Zinn; Costume Design: Sarah Laux; Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu; Sound Design: Kai Harada; Projection Design: Lucy McKinnon; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Arabella Powell. The Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St., 646.989.7996, https://atlantictheater.org/production/kimberly-akimbo/. Masks and proof of vaccination required. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Through Sunday, January 2.