Virgil’s ancient Roman maxim “tempus fugit” is nowhere more apparent than in the life of New Jersey teenager Kimberly Levaco in 1999. Afflicted with a rare genetic disorder that causes her body to age at four-and-a-half times the normal rate, she is just turning sixteen, but looks like a 72-year-old. Her time is flying by, and this milestone birthday marks the average life expectancy for someone with her incurable condition.
The theme, inspired by the real-life disease progeria (also known as Hutchinson-Gilford Syndrome) has the makings of a heartbreaking tragedy, but along with the touching poignancy in Kimberly Akimbo – the new musical from Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori (music) and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics), based on his critically-acclaimed play of the same name – is uproarious coming-of-age comedy, zany familial dysfunction, and an uplifting reminder to all of us to find happiness in life whenever, wherever, and while it’s still possible.
Jessica Stone’s engaging direction captures the perfect mix of lively over-the-top dark humor punctuated with tender moments of profound heartrending reality, with an emphasis on the wacky storyline, off-beat personalities, and the positivity that drives the eponymous character. And the newly added songs (with music direction by Chris Fenwick, orchestrations by John Clancy, additional orchestrations by Macy Schmidt, and choreography by Danny Mefford) embrace and elevate the tender moods with heartfelt ballads and the sidesplitting hilarity with youthful energy and laugh-out-loud lyrics that lampoon NJ, teen angst, and assorted felonies (though the highly entertaining song list is not included in the musical’s Playbill program).
Born in 1959, Tony winner and multi-award nominee Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) turns in a thoroughly irresistible, sensitive, and heartwarming performance as the smart, funny, and good-natured Kimberly, believably embodying her adolescent behavior, mindset, and mannerisms, affectingly balanced with the very adult challenges of dealing with her unstable family, her outsider status, the blossoming of first love, and her impending mortality, shockingly foreshadowed in a dramatic disguise she puts on late in the narrative (costume by Sarah Laux, and hair and makeup by J. Jared Janas). It’s a brilliant portrayal that is rich with compassion and filled with deep understated emotion that should garner Clark many more accolades and awards.
Taking on the roles of her laughably unlikeable and ridiculously insensitive parents are Steven Boyer as Buddy (an irresponsible lying drunk, whose rare instances of fatherly concern only serve to embarrass Kim, just as his repeatedly broken promises disappoint her) and Alli Mauzey as Pattie (an indolent self-absorbed hypochondriac, pregnant with her second child, who makes thoughtless comments to her daughter and a video for the baby she’s expecting, defending herself from what others say about her and promoting her questionable claim that she’s a “good mother”). Their outlandish conduct forces Kim to assume the maturity they lack, to maneuver through her impossible situation with little support, and to keep the wild (and legally indictable!) family secrets that drove them to flee their home in Secaucus.
With the unexpected arrival of Kim’s unwelcome Aunt Debra, from whom they were hiding – an outspokenly vulgar ex-con and relentless scam artist delivered with unabashed audacity and perfect comic timing by the riotous powerhouse Bonnie Milligan – all is revealed, even more sparks fly in the family, and a fraudulent check scheme is soon underway. She masterminds the plan, then enlists and instructs Kim and her small circle of adorably nerdy new friends, with whom she hangs out at school, the library, and the skating rink (in a fluid scenic design by David Zinn), to carry it out.
The kids are played by the across-the-board excellent and vocally harmonious Olivia Elease Hardy as Delia, Fernell Hogan II as Martin, Nina White as Teresa, Michael Iskander as Aaron, and 2021 Jimmy Award finalist Justin Cooley as Seth, who shares a shy awkwardness, a love of anagrams (rearranging the letters of Kimberly Levaco into “cleverly akimbo”), a biology class project on her aging disorder, a growing romantic attraction, and the offer of a first kiss, any time she wants it, with Kim.
As the characters reimagine their possibilities and perspectives, their determination to seize life surfaces and they all come face to face with the opportunities presented to them. With that, in addition to all the jocular songs and Jersey jokes, Kimberly Akimbo delivers a serious message to everyone, of every age, about the urgency of finding joy: don’t delay; the time to be happy is now. This quirky life-affirming musical is a well-spent two-and-a-half hours that definitively brings on the joy and made me happy.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
Kimberly Akimbo plays through Saturday, January 15, 2022, at Atlantic Theater Company, performing at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $81.50-111.50), go online. Audience members must show proof of complete COVID-19 vaccination before the date of attendance and mask-wearing is required indoors at the theater.