Brimming with heart, hope and happiness, new Broadway musical Kimberley Akimbo is an inspirational joy.
Playing off-Broadway last year, boutique musical Kimberley Akimbo has been neatly upsized for its big fat Broadway debut. Adapting his 2001 play, book and lyric writer David Lindsay-Abaire has added a (Greek) chorus of four self-admittedly nerdy teens to sweetly support the main plot.
Although the disease is not specifically named, Kimberly has the symptoms of progeria, which causes her to age at 4-5 times the usual rate. In high school with sweetheart Jeff and the other teens, exposition around Kimberly’s illness is aided by a Biology research project subplot.
Making the Wormwoods (parents of Matilda) look kind, Kimberly’s drunken father and hypochondriac mother cope poorly with their daughter. For welcome comic relief, there is Kimberly’s outrageous aunt Debra, who is basically the love child of Jack Black and Melissa McCarthy.
Lindsay-Abaire teams again with composer Jeanine Tesori, and while the result is far from Shrek the Musical, the two shows share something of a connection in regard to the acceptance of self and compassion for outsiders. While the central theme is quite sombre, the score for Kimberley Akimbo ispleasantly upbeat, coloured by Kimberly’s unflappable optimism and positivity.
Something of a female Fagin, aunt Debra leads the show-choir teens in two lively showstoppers, enticing them to join her scheme with “Better” and then seeing it through with “How to Wash a Check.”
Director Jessica Stone keeps the slightly outsized characterisations down to earth, and judiciously balances moments of heart rending pathos with lashings of good cheer. Choreographer Danny Mefford benefits from the conceit that the teens are all in show choir, providing flashy yet naturalistic moves. And the ice skating number (without ice) is a marvel.
One of Broadway’s most cherished divas, Victoria Clark is an absolute delight as dear Kimberly. Sentimental and self-reflective when required, Clark avoids any potential mawkishness as she quickly draws the audience to her breast and never lets go. In one of the most moving scenes, Clark is wordless, silently reacting to the sheer confidence of the future plans of her ebullient classmates. The 2023 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical is Clark’s for the taking.
Under Stone’s sensitive direction, Justin Cooley plays Kimberly’s love interest Seth as naturally as if both performers were the same age.
Unlike the cartoonish Wormwoods, Kimberly’s parents are created with a more three-dimensional approach. Allie Mauzie gives an insight into Pattie’s pain, particularly when singing to her new unborn baby in “Hello, Darling.” At this performance, Jim Hogan was a terrific everyman as Buddy, delivering some very heartless lines while avoiding simple villainy.
Bonnie Milligan is an absolute hoot as diabolical Debra, embracing the desperation and outlandishness of her character while somehow never going over the top.
Leaving the audience smiling as they wipe away a gentle tear, Kimberly Akimbo is a wonderful counterpoint for the big budget tourist-trap extravaganzas of greater Broadway.
Kimberley Akimbo plays at Booth Theatre, New York.
Photos: Joan Marcus