The cast of 'Kimberly Akimbo' on how the story got better with age

The cast of Kimberly Akimbo shared their journeys with the show and how the play-turned-musical transformed from its Off-Broadway premiere to Broadway.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

The new musical Kimberly Akimbo has been decades in the making — well, sort of. David Lindsay-Abaire’s same-named play Kimberly Akimbo premiered with Manhattan Theatre Club in 2003, and his musicalized version premiered with Atlantic Theater Company in 2021 before quickly transferring to Broadway the following year.

Now a contender for the Tony Award for Best New Musical, Kimberly Akimbo follows Kimberly Levaco, a 16-year-old teen in New Jersey with a rare disease that causes her to age four times the average rate. Kimberly looks like she’s 70something, and she’s got resentful parents, a scheming aunt, and an expected short lifespan.

Despite it all, she has a verve for life, brimming with the hopes and dreams of teenhood while ice skating and chasing friendships and crushes. As it made its way uptown, the quirky tuner, with a book and lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, found its sound and its heart. (And seven more Tony nominations.)

At a live recording for SiriusXM in New York City, the cast of Kimberly Akimbo shared their journeys with the lauded show. Victoria Clark, a Tony nominee for playing the title Kimberly, first learned of the musical project before the pandemic.

Kimberly Akimbo has been in my life for more than three years,” said Clark. “I've been living with [Kimberly] and trying to get to know her all this time… I've been living with the script and the music for a long time.”

Justin Cooley, who stars as the big-hearted, tuba-playing Seth, joined the musical project fresh out of high school after being a fan of Tesori’s for years. “I didn't feel super prepared, and I didn't know if I could make it happen, but I knew I had to take the chance,” said Cooley, who also earned a Tony nomination for his performance.

Olivia Elease Hardy and Nina White, who portray members of the high school show choir, were classmates at Michigan State University. When Hardy got a callback for Kimberly Akimbo, she reached out to her fellow graduates in New York City to see if anyone had an open couch.

White, who had been a New York resident all but two days, offered up her futon. Hardy was tight-lipped about the project, but little did she know, White was also called back, and the two performed sides together at the audition. “It’s been so nice to have one of my closest friends beside me for this ride,” said Hardy.

When Lindsay-Abaire’s play premiered at MTC, Clark was in The Light in the Piazza and missed the production. “It starred the iconic Marylouise Burke, who is about as different a Kimberly as you can find on planet Earth from moi — she’s brilliant,” said Clark with a laugh.

However, being part of its second go-around has been a real gift. “David and Jeanine talk about how they feel adapting this from a play to a musical has made the whole piece deeper and more beautiful in some ways,” Clark added.

Bonnie Milligan, who stars as Kimberly’s jailbird Aunt Deb, shared that the process of transferring the show uptown honed it further. “One of the things that the team really focused on in moving from off Broadway to Broadway was deepening the work,” said Milligan, who is nominated for her performance. “They made it more intimate and beautiful.”

Character-wise, the adults got a revamp. “This round really deepened the adults in her life because we're a little bit dysfunctional,” said Milligan with a laugh. The creative team aimed to make the adult characters as real as possible, despite the show’s absurd situations. The dichotomy leaves “audiences laughing and also feeling all the feelings,” said Milligan.

The heartfelt music really drives the musical’s emotional narrative. Tesori worked closely with the cast to develop musical throughlines and hone in on the storytelling. At Atlantic Theater Company, one run-through focused solely on transitions, so Tesori could identify which characters to highlight musically from scene to scene. “She is, I think, one of our greatest living composers. She's a genius,” effused Milligan.

Cooley added, “She really helps not only build the world but also our characters.” An electric guitar riff in Cooley’s solo number “Good Kid” unlocks an edgier side to his goody-two-shoes character. “It shows a different side, and she gives you so many different things to think about as you're building your own character… She composes in the style of the character; she's the heartbeat of the person.” Indeed, the score ranges from bouncy ukulele tunes to rollicking belts.

The process of building up the characters and the songs for the Broadway run was incredibly collaborative. Milligan workshopped her show-stopping number “Better” with Tesori in the basement of Atlantic Theater Company. Together, the pair zeroed in on the character’s tactics in the song. “That was one of the best times in my entire life — having Jeanine Tesori say, ‘Can I build something on you?’ Absolutely, ma'am!”

Even after its yearslong journey to the Booth Theatre, the close-knit cast still lines up in the wings to watch certain scenes night after night, a testament to the musical’s magic and staying power. For his part, Cooley enjoys watching the show choir’s singing entrance. “It’s complex and dynamic every night — they all have something different going on, and it is so awesome,” said Cooley.

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Photo credit: The cast of Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway. (Photos by Joan Marcus)

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