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Photo credit: Kimberly Akimbo cast (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Akimbo)

'Kimberly Akimbo' review — a bittersweet musical packed with surprises

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

In the opening moment of Kimberly Akimbo, a misfit New Jersey teenager waiting for a ride home stretches her candy choker into her mouth and chomps down on it. Such a kid thing to do.

It's a perfect start to this funny-sad musical treat by composer Jeanine Tesori and writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play. Like the nibbled necklace, the show gives you something to chew on as it looks at life, death, and what comes in-between.

"Dad? Are you okay to drive?" Kim asks her father when he finally arrives at the skating rink. Even though she's the kid, Kim, who's aging four times faster than normal because of a rare disease and is played by an actress in her 60s, is the family elder.

What's that like? That's what Lindsay-Abaire was chasing in his 2003 off-kilter comedy and now revisits. It predated his award-winning dramas, Rabbit Hole and Good People, as well as Shrek, the musical he wrote with Tesori about another sort of outcast.

For the lonely Kimberly Levaco (Victoria Clark), life expectancy is 16 years. And — tick tock — she has just hit that mile marker. Her family scarcely notices. Dad (Steven Boyer) drinks to distraction. Mom (Alli Mauzey) is focused on her pregnancy — and for good reason. Shady Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) is cooking up another reckless illegal scheme. 

The lone, unexpected bright spot is Seth Brett Weetis (Justin Cooley), a nerdy student who's deep into anagrams, and it turns out, Kim. Her crush was called Jeff in the play, and the tweak enables his name to be scrambled into an anagram that captures the musical's bittersweetness.

Lindsay-Abaire has stuffed the story with wacky laughs, but doesn't avoid painful streaks. When her dad frets about her having a boyfriend, she says (as she did in the play): "What are you worried about? I went through menopause four years ago." Oof.

David Zinn's sets shift the story from rink to home to school, while Sarah Laux's costumes — jeans and jumpers for Kim — seem plucked from a teen's closet. The plot does get almost too outlandish for its own good. That's the case when Debra drags her niece, Seth and four more teens (played by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White, and Michael Iskander) into a truly unlikely check-laundering scheme. It's best not to overthink it.

Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) and Lindsay-Abaire have created a score of emotionally rich songs that glows like a musical mood ring. Kim's yearning shines in "Make a Wish," while the Levato family dynamic comes through in "The Inevitable Turn." "Anagram" cheerfully relates the value of a shift in perspective. "How to Wash a Check" speaks for itself.

Director Jessica Stone has assembled an ensemble that's uniformly terrific in this the Atlantic Theater Company presentation. Newcomer Cooley has charm to spare. Milligan is a mighty belter and criminally deft scene-stealer. Clark, a Tony Award winner for The Light in the Piazza, gives a lived-in performance that's playful and poignant and very affecting. 

Watching a new show that satisfies and surprises never gets old. 

Kimberly Akimbo is at the Linda Gross Theater to January 2. Get Kimberly Akimbo tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Kimberly Akimbo cast (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Akimbo)

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