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How 'Kimberly Akimbo' pays homage to '90s culture

The musical adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's play nods to lots of the decade's trends.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The '90s are back — on stage! When David Lindsay-Abaire premiered his hit play Kimberly Akimbo in 2001, boybands were still the talk of every teenage girl, baggy flannels and candy necklaces were in style, and great theatre — or great anything — was "all that and a bag of chips." Now that the '90s are in style again, it's fitting that Lindsay-Abaire's play, set in 1993, is back too, this time as a musical.

The musical adaptation retains the original story: a teenage girl with an aging condition that makes her look 72 (and a host of other problems) is trying to make the best of high school with the limited time she's got. The show premiered off Broadway last year and has now made a Broadway transfer to the Booth Theatre, with all its period glory intact. So '90s kids and '90s kids-at-heart will get to relive old dance trends, fashion, pop culture and more at Kimberly Akimbo, and those not yet born in the '90s will learn a little about what high school was like without texting or Instagram.

Here are all the '90s nods in the Kimberly Akimbo musical. With heart, fun, and flannels, the show is sure to be 'da bomb.

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'90s fashion

One of the major ways Kimberly Akimbo pays homage to the '90s is through the costumes. Costume designer Sarah Laux had a tough job sourcing the right pieces — but not just because the '90s are 30 years in the past.

"The '90s are kind of back, so she said the challenge is finding things that don't look like today's fashion throwing back, but like actual '90s looks — there is a difference," said Bonnie Milligan, who plays Kimberly's aunt Debra.

Laux succeeded. A look at Kimberly alone reveals that: One of her outfits consists of layered tees with a plaid shirt around her waist, wide-legged jeans, hair barrettes, chunky rings, and a candy necklace. That's a lot of '90s fashion trends in one place!

"Everyone looks baggy, vibrant, neon," said actor Justin Cooley of the look of the costumes at large. His co-star Olivia Elease Hardy added: "It's going to look like we stepped into an episode of Saved by the Bell."

'90s pop culture

There are multiple little nods to '90s pop culture throughout Kimberly Akimbo. Kimberly's room, for one, is a '90s kid's dream, with magazine cutouts, colorful string lights, and of course, boyband posters — the '90s saw New Kids on the Block, NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and others at their peak.

On the flip side, the musical also incorporates "nerd culture," as Cooley put it. His character Seth, a fellow outcast student who befriends Kimberly, makes most of these references.

"Dungeons & Dragons was big, Lord of the Rings — you can keep an eye out for small things that Seth may talk about or say that alludes to that type of culture," Cooley said. "That's one of my favorite parts for sure."

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'90s technology

Or lack thereof, that is. The '90s setting means social media, smartphones, and constant texting weren't part of teenagers' lives yet. When Lindsay-Abaire wrote the original Kimberly Akimbo in 2000, that was still the case, but it was important to him and composer Jeanine Tesori to keep 21st-century tech out of the musical, too.

"It is way more important, especially in high school, just to be with your peers and to talk to them," said Michael Iskander, who plays the student Aaron. "And it makes my character more anxious because he's in love, and every chance he gets to talk, his blood pressure rises."

'90s kids might remember the struggle. But in all seriousness, a lack of online avenues to build friendships outside school makes the characters' loneliness hold even more weight. They're not in the popular crowd, and there are few ways to find like-minded people.

"When you're at a tender young age and you're considered a weirdo at school, you never know who's with you," Tesori said. "There were no Facebook groups. There were none of those things. You went around with your lasers and your Star Wars things and your Dungeons & Dragons, and you don't know who's with you. It is really a show about finding that."

And when the characters do find that in-person connection, it's especially meaningful. "When we are meeting at the skating rink or meeting at school, it holds a different social importance because we can't just text each other all the time," said Nina White, who plays the student Teresa in the show.

'90s dance moves

It wouldn't be a '90s musical without the dance trends that defined the decade. Choreographer Danny Mefford was a '90s kid himself, so choreographing the show came naturally to him.

"My whole high school was '96 to 2000," he said. "I didn't have to dig very deep or do any research; I just remembered it all.

"We've got a little Cabbage Patch going on in there; we've got a little Roger Rabbit," Mefford continued. These '90s moves and more are incorporated in with musical theatre dance, so keep an eye out for them! Perhaps they'll bring back some memories from audience members' own high school dances.

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