Kimberly Akimbo is the outstanding new musical on Broadway right now

It was strange getting a breath of fresh air during the break Kimberly Akimbo (Booth Theatre, booking by April 23, 2023) to realize that my face had been marked by a constant smile since the curtain rose. Sometimes, often, that smile had burst into laughter because this Broadway musical, based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play of the same name, is hilarious.

And even if this musical, adapted from a successful Off-Broadway performance at the Atlantic Theater, isn’t funny — because the book and lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire come with penetrating, meaningful stings, too — there’s something to it Kimberly Akimbo‘s execution that feels springy and light at heart. With the assured direction of Jessica Stone and the clever, layered music of Jeanine Tesori, it’s a delight to present the standout new Broadway musical of the season so far.

This reviewer wasn’t so charmed by the show on the Atlantic stage; On this larger stage, he was completely convinced. It’s hard to single out one performer; they are all exceptional, leading and supporting, and the songs and drama give any actor on stage plenty of gems to perform.

At first we don’t know why Kimberly (Victoria Clark) is at the rink with a group of kids somewhere in Bergen County, New Jersey, but it soon turns out that what looks like an elderly woman in front of us has a rare one genetic disorder that has rapidly aged her body to four times her actual age. She really is 16 but looks and is physically 72. We learn that the average life expectancy for someone with her condition is 16. Times are not on Kimberly’s side.

The second name in the show’s title comes from an anagram made of her name by the show’s hero, tuba-loving high school sophomore Seth (Justin Cooley). He’s also a bit akimbo, a hard-working teenager, a proud nerd, dry comedian and – despite his youth – keen to help Kim fulfill her dream of a road trip. Clark, in her 60s, and 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 differences. We cheer for them as a couple as they explore what “couple” might mean under these strange circumstances.

Kimberly Akimbo doesn’t make any of his characters easy; each is sharp, individually drawn and played. Her classmates on the show aren’t mean and cruel to Kim; they don’t understand what she’s suffering from, but they don’t persecute her for it. They are just as “akimbo” as they are. “It’s Saturday night in Buttcrack Township, on a street with no 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 empathize with every character on stage, just as they can be annoying, insensitive, stupid, cute, and swearing at times. Dad Buddy (Steven Boyer) drinks heavily at home, and Kim practices lying desperately for him, even when he picks her up more than two hours late (“Just say car trouble and I’ll take you to Six Flags”). Upset with everyone, upset with the world, pregnant mother Pattie (Alli Mauzey) sings a lullaby over a video camera to an unborn child who has been injected with bitter truth serum. Swear words and vicious verbal daisy-cutters zip through the living room (“Aspirations? Haven’t had those since high school”).

And then—a Broadway star is born—lands Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan), a convict hauling dangerous cans of chemicals in her wake, ready for her next con. Milligan is a storm of profanity, comic timing, withering side eye, and singing firepower (on Twitter her aptly called “Belting Bonnie”). Deb sings about a former partner: “He was Greek. / He may have been gay. / He needed a green card. / I needed the money. / We got married in Passaic last May.” The split-second moment Deb sorts out the teenage quartet’s hidden passions is the best comedy on a Broadway stage to date.

(l to r): Nina White, Bonnie Milligan, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander and Olivia Hardy in Kimberly Akimbo.

Johanna Marcus

Deb has a plan that will benefit her and the kids – another great song unfolds as her crime plan takes shape. There are also family secrets about to be revealed, but mostly this is a family in pain, and their pain revolves around fear of Kim’s condition — and the axis of loud and quiet resentment that has developed around it. As Kim, fed up with her lack of parenting, sings, “I was never the daughter you wanted. We never say that. / But that is the truth, and that is all right.”

Kim wants to make the most of life, but she’s surrounded by two parents siphoning off joys they don’t recognize as essential to life — though they also want liberation from their own demons. Trauma has frozen each family member differently, and Kim no longer wants to feel its chilling effects: “I want to walk on stilts! / I want to bungee jump. In Sweden./I want to go to China. And New Zealand. And St. Louis./I want a jet ski!/I want piranha!’ she sings, in a song that also wishes for a ‘simple, home-cooked meal.’

David Zinn’s design is simple and stunning whether at home, at school or at the rink, while Danny Mefford’s choreography mixes styles with as much humor as the script. The small scenes, the marginal notes, are observed just as well as the more complex scenes; When the kids have to choose a disease to talk about in biology class, Martin explains, “Scurvy. We’re pretty excited about it.” And although Seth initially cringees when she talks about her illness, Kim sees someone as quirky as she is.

In a beautiful song she, Seth and Buddy sing in the car, her father feels very protective of her. But Kim wants out, and what she’s going to do, the power she’s going to claim for herself, the fate she aspires to, forms the jubilant, concluding part of the musical, culminating in a closing sequence where you might both laugh and… laugh sniff along. “It makes you laugh, it makes you cry” may be a cultural cliché, but it’s also achieved – in the best way possible – through the endearing warmth and sharp bite and wit of Kimberly Akimbo. Kimberly Akimbo is the outstanding new musical on Broadway right now

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