Theater review by Adam Feldman
Sixteen is not sweet for the deceptively youthful heroine of the lovely Kimberly Akimbo. Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own 2001 play, with new music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change), the show has a central conceit that verges on magical realism: Kimberly Levaco suffers from an “incredibly rare genetic disorder” that makes her age at a superfast rate. Played by the 62-year-old Victoria Clark, she is physically and psychically out of place among her peers at high school, who have more conventional adolescent problems like unrequited crushes. “Getting older is my affliction,” she sings in a rare burst of confrontation. “Getting older is your cure.”
Life at home in New Jersey with her incompetently overprotective father (Steven Boyer) and pregnant, self-absorbed mother (Alli Mauzey) is even less appealing. But as Kimberly stares into her cruelly foreshortened future—the life expectancy for people with her illness is, yes, 16—two agents of disruption shake up her perspective. The first is her aunt Debra (the unstoppable Bonnie Milligan), a hilarious gale force of chaos who blows into town and quickly recruits her niece into an elaborate check-fraud scheme. The other is Seth (Justin Cooley), a tuba-playing classmate with an affinity for anagrams that suggests, to Kimberly, that maybe he could see her in a rearranged way too.
Clever, touching and idiosyncratic, Kimberly Akimbo is the best new musical of 2021, and Jessica Stone’s well-cast world-premiere production at the Atlantic does it justice. The dark absurdist comedy of Lindsay-Abaire’s original play—reminiscent of Christopher Durang, John Guare and the playwright’s own Fuddy Meers—remains, but it is tempered by the addition of a four-person chorus of students and by Tesori’s winding, agile melodies; material that might have been rendered merely as zany has a more human dimension. And while she’s perhaps a bit short in the tooth for the part, Clark is very winsome here. Kimberly is a special creation, at once younger than her years and old before her time; if her relationship with Seth recalls the title characters in Harold and Maude, it’s not quite obvious which is which. Mortality is in every beat of this show, but less like a clock than like a pulse. As Kimberly sings: “I know I might be dying”—aren’t we all?—"but I’m not dead.”
Kimberly Akimbo. Atlantic Theatre Company (Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Jessica Stone. With Victoria Clark, Steven Boyer, Alli Mauzey, Bonnie Milligan, Justin Cooley. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Kimberly Akimbo | Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. Foster