It was strange, leaving for a breath of fresh air at intermission during Kimberly Akimbo (Booth Theatre, booking to April 23, 2023), to realize that my face had been creased in a constant smile since curtain-up. Sometimes, many times, that smile had broken out into a laugh, because this Broadway musical based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play of the same name is extremely funny.
And even when this musical, transferred from a successful off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater, isn’t funny—because the book and lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire come with piercing, meaningful jabs too—there is something about Kimberly Akimbo’s execution that feels springy and light at its heart. Under Jessica Stone’s assured direction, and clever, layered music by Jeanine Tesori, it’s a delight, the standout new Broadway musical of the season so far.
This critic was not as enchanted with the show on the Atlantic stage; on this grander stage, he was utterly won over. It is hard to single out any one performer; they are all, major and minor roles, exceptional—and the songs and drama give plentiful pearls to perform for every actor on stage.
At first, we don’t know why Kimberly (Victoria Clark) is at the skating rink with a group of kids somewhere in Bergen County, New Jersey, but it soon emerges that what looks like an older woman in front of us has a rare genetic disorder that has rapidly aged her body to be four times her actual age. She is really 16, yet looks and is physically 72. We learn that the average life expectancy for someone with her condition is 16. Time is not on Kimberly’s side.
The second name in the title of the show comes from an anagram the show’s hero, the tuba-loving high school sophomore Seth (Justin Cooley), made from her name. He is a bit akimbo too, a teenager who works hard, is a proud nerd, drily comic, and—despite his youth—keen to help Kim achieve her dreams to go on a road trip. Clark, in her 60s, and the teenage Cooley perfect the best kind of chemistry on stage—a sort of chaste, platonic, and yes, also gently romantic connection rooted in respect, humor, and a sense of shared difference. We root for them as a couple as they figure out what "couple" might mean in these strange circumstances.
Kimberly Akimbo doesn’t make any of its characters simple; each is sharply, individually drawn and played. Her fellow schoolkids in the show are not mean and cruel to Kim; they don’t understand what she is suffering from but do not persecute her for it. They are just as “akimbo” as she is. “It’s Saturday night in Buttcrack Township, on a road without a sign,” they sing at the rink. Aaron (Michael Iskander) has a crush on Delia (Olivia Elease Hardy) who has a crush on Teresa (Nina White) who has a crush on Martin (Fernell Hogan) who has a crush on Aaron.
You feel for every character on stage, just as they also may be occasionally infuriating, insensitive, dumb, sweet, and sweary. At home, dad Buddy (Steven Boyer) drinks a lot, with Kim practiced in lying for him exasperatedly, even as he picks her up over two hours late (“Just say car trouble, and I’ll take you to Six Flags”). Pregnant mom Pattie (Alli Mauzey), ratty with everyone, ratty with the world, sings a lullaby that’s been injected with bitter truth serum to an unborn child via a video camera. Expletives and vicious verbal daisy cutters whizz across the living room (“Aspirations? I haven’t had those since high school”).
And then—a Broadway star is born—Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) lands, a former convict out to work her next con, lugging dangerous cans of chemicals in her wake. Milligan is a gale of profanity, comic timing, withering side-eye, and singing firepower (on Twitter, she is appositely named “Belting Bonnie”). Of a previous partner, Deb sings, “He was Greek. / He was possibly gay. / He needed a green card. / I needed the cash. / We got married in Passaic last May.” The split-second moment where Deb sorts out the quartet of teens’ hidden passions is the best burst of comedy on a Broadway stage right now.
Deb has a scheme to benefit herself and the kids—another great song unfolds as their scheme of criminality takes shape. There are also family secrets about to be revealed, but mostly this is a family in pain, and its pain is centered around fear of Kim’s condition—and the axis of loud and silent resentments that has bloomed around it. As Kim, who has had enough of their lacking parenting, sings, “I was never the daughter you wanted. That’s the thing we never say. / But that’s the truth, and that’s OK.”
Kim wants to make as much out of life as possible, but she is around two parents who siphon off joy, who don’t recognize her as needing to live—even though they want liberation from their own demons too. Trauma has frozen each member of the family differently, and Kim does not want to feel its chilling effects any longer: “I wanna walk on stilts!/I wanna bungee jump. In Sweden./I wanna go to China. And New Zealand. And St. Louis./I want a jetski!/I want piranha!” she sings, in a song which also wishes for a “simple, home-cooked meal.”
David Zinn’s design is simple and stunning whether at home, school, and ice rink, while Danny Mefford’s choreography mixes up styles with as much humor as the script. The small scenes, the asides, are as well-observed as the more complex scenes; when the kids have to pick a disease to talk about in bio class, Martin explains, “Scurvy. We’re pretty excited about it.” And even though Seth clod-hops initially when discussing her disease, Kim sees someone as quirky as she is.
In a lovely song sung as she, Seth, and Buddy are in the car, her dad feels fiercely protective of her. But Kim wants out, and what she will do, the power she will claim for herself, the destiny she elects to reach for, forms the cheering, closing part of the musical right up to a final sequence that you may find yourself both laughing and sniffling along to. “It makes you laugh, it makes you cry” may be a cultural cliché, but it is also—in the best possible way—achieved by the winning warmth and sharp grit and wit of Kimberly Akimbo.