This almost never happens to a novel, movie or play when it’s turned into a musical. Typically, when songs are added, the narrative needs to be made simpler, character motivations get scrunched and so the original source material ends up being compromised.
Something different has happened to David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Kimberly Akimbo” on its way to becoming a new musical, which opened Wednesday at the Atlantic Theater Company. It’s still funny and quirky and very off-center, but the story of a rapidly aging 16-year-old girl and her deadbeat family has been grounded. No, not grounded in a high school sort of way. Jeanine Tesori’s music grounds the story in a way that gives the source material resonance, makes it more substantial and far more emotionally engaging.
Lindsay-Abaire writes the book and lyrics, which are just as clever as the expletive- and slang-laden dialogue of his original 2001 play. He also slightly expands the story to include a chorus of four high school friends who include a lesbian (Olivia Elease Hardy) who’s interested in a straight girl (Nina White) who’s interested in a gay boy (Fernell Hogan II) who’s interested in a straight boy (Michael Iskander). Any problem that Kimberly has almost goes unnoticed in this “No Exit” rectangle of teen hormones.
Almost unnoticed — if not for the fact that Kimberly (Victoria Clark) has Methuselah Syndrome and a tuba player (Justin Cooley) at school never seems to care that she looks like his grandmother. Clark’s performance is another big reason the musical seems more grounded than the play. Marylouise Burke originated the role, and brought her patented pixilated zaniness to the character. Clark’s performance is far more direct and devoid of mannerisms. Kimberly is now an ordinary teenage trapped in a much older person’s body, and only through song can she escape to be truly free. Unlike most new musicals based on previous material, the title character of “Kimberly Akimbo” has a reason to sing.
Stephen Sondheim liberated musical artists to explore more adventurous topics, such as the hyper-aging of a child. (When someone worries that Kimberly might get pregnant, the 16-year-old says not to worry, “I went through menopause four years ago.”) Given that freedom of subject matter, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori rely on some very old rules dating back to the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, if not before. Early in the musical, Clark sings a classic What I Want Song, aptly titled “Make a Wish,” in which she allows herself to dream beyond the restrictions imposed by her body. Next up, she and Cooley deliver a vintage Conditional Love Song, titled “Anagram,” which, because it is a word game, allows them to fall in love without having to admit it to each other or even themselves.
Back in 2003, when Tesori (with lyricist Tony Kushner) wrote the great “Caroline, or Change,” a number of critics diminished her talent, noting this composer’s penchant for pastiche. It’s good to remember that Sondheim got hit with the pastiche label when “Follies” opened in 1971. There are touches of R&B and country in “Kimberly Akimbo,” but that’s only because it’s the kind of music these characters grew up with, just as the characters in “Follies” breathe the razzle-dazzle of old showbiz tunes.
In the documentary “Six by Sondheim,” the late composer decries the “hummable” tune and says he wrote only one hit song, “Send in the Clowns,” which didn’t achieve popularity until Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.
Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire have written their “Send in the Clowns,” and it’s the plaintive lament “Good Kid,” sung by Cooley in between his playing the tuba. The song will soon be the anthem at every high school graduation. The only thing that will achieve quicker popularity is Cooley himself. His Playbill bio reveals that he is “a musical theater student at Texas Christian University.” A musical theater student?! This young actor not only holds his own against a great veteran like Clark, he is the perfect light comic antidote to the extreme pathos induced by her performance.
Cooley is not alone in that department. Playing Kimberly’s drunk father and her hypochondriac mother, Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey delight with their inspired loopiness while Clark, looking like their mom, is forced to play that parental role. An even bigger and more mischievous kid is Kimberly’s on-the-lam aunt, who comes up with an ingenious scheme to make money as quick as it is illegal. Given great orange-jumpsuit material, Bonnie Milligan vividly embodies the first “Breaking Bad” character for the musical stage. Unlike what happens in most other shows, musicals as well as plays, Kimberly’s wicked family never improves. They remain a mess. The sets by David Zinn and costumes by Sarah Laux depict this typical New Jersey milieu with wit and simplicity.
The erstwhile actor Jessica Stone directs “Kimberly Akimbo,” and it’s difficult to think of a more auspicious New York stage debut for a director. It’s the other amazing thing about this production: The number of New York stage debuts include not only hers and Cooley’s but three of the four students who become Kimberly’s partners in crime. Hardy, Iskander and White look and act like real teenagers except for the fact that they’re genuinely talented. Only Hogan is a veteran of sorts, having appeared in “The Prom” on Broadway. Each of them shines in a comic showstopper, which turns very dark, titled “Our Disease,” in which the class assignment is to report on an illness of the student’s choice. It takes you back to high school where growing up was the only way out. Except for someone like Kimberly.
Sondheim never tired of writing a soft-shoe number to let us know all the world is a stage. “Kimberly Akimbo” ends with the jubilant soft-shoe “Great Adventure” to take its title character on the road. It’s a lovely toe tap and hat tip to the master.
One last kudo: Thanks to Laux for not putting the lesbian character in a stocking cap. It’s a real musical-theater breakthrough.