Victoria Clark is no Madeline Kahn.
That’s also true of Steven Boyer, Justin Cooley, Bonnie Milligan and Alli Mauzey.
Given that Kahn was a Tony-winning and Oscar-nominated star, this statement would seem to be a criticism.
No, it’s a compliment.
In 1978, when Kahn was playing the Boston tryout and New York previews of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, director Harold Prince was discouraged that she wasn’t wonderful.
However, on the official opening night, Kahn did superbly. Afterward Prince ran backstage and raved, to which she coolly replied, “Well, I hope you don’t expect me to do that every night.”
Yes, some performers only ramp it up when critics attend. But when the aisle-sitters are sitting somewhere else – and eight performances a week seem like 800 – many actors show The Phoning-It-In Syndrome and Walk-through-the-Show-itis.
Not at KIMBERLY AKIMBO. Dropping in on a recent Wednesday matinee proved that each cast member was performing at the same fever pitch that I saw during the Atlantic Theatre run in 2021 and on Broadway last November. Although the first set sports an outdoor sign on which “Birthday Party” has its “D” and “R” drooping, no one in this cast is.
Clark, in the title role of a kid who has progeria – the rare genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly – retained a face full of genuine optimism when she sang that a move to a new Jersey town meant, “I get to start from scratch!” A kid with this ailment could have given up long ago, but Kimberly opts to see opportunities, which Clark expressed beautifully.
So what happened when a new classmate just stared as she passed by or when another cringed after almost bumping into her? Clark showed that Kimberly was only slightly discouraged and still wouldn’t move into what’s-the-use territory.
How Clark excelled in her matter-of-fact delivery when mentioning that kids with progeria tend to die at 16 – and that Kimberly was turning 15. Both Clark and director Jessica Stone know that if you want the audience to cry, a performer mustn’t. Let your characters be strong, and theatergoers will care even more for them when they’re in trouble.
When Kimberly wrote The Make-a-Wish Foundation, Clark’s delivery of “Lucky me” illustrated that she wasn’t looking for pity; she wanted to come across as funny and ironic. After chronicling this, that and the other thing, Clark saved her most moving moment in the letter for last, saying that she most wanted a “normal family life.”
By this point, we’d met her parents and knew it would never happen.
Ally Mauzey, as Kimberly’s mother Pattie, did initially amuse as a woman who’s I.Q. has never neared triple figures. Then the way she looked at her bandaged hands adeptly seized our sympathy; this was a tangible reminder of her decades of arduous factory work.
And yet, Mauzey displayed optimism, too, when she made a video for her about-to-be-born baby. Like Kimberly, she liked the chance to start from scratch, knowing that her new child will love her unconditionally.
(For a while, anyway …)
When Mauzey stated that she once wanted to be a dancer, Clark used the cliché “It’s never too late.” The looks on their faces revealed that they sadly didn’t believe it. Before our sympathies could ramp up, Mauzey then mentioned that her pregnancy with Kimberly prevented her from reaching her life’s apotheosis: Prom Queen.
(As if Kimberly had been responsible for that …)
The situation further deteriorated when Mauzey matter-of-factly said about her upcoming child, “This one will be perfect.” What a groan the audience gave as Clark stoically sat there and took the insult. And yet, Mauzey’s real achievement is making her Pattie clueless, not cruel.
We’re only told her husband’s nickname: Buddy. Would that he were a buddy to Kimberly, but here’s where Clark had to disclose less optimism. When she saw her father drunk-as-usual, the girl who resembled an adult had to become one: Kimberly gingerly questioned his driving while pointedly suggesting coffee on their ride home.
As Buddy, Steven Boyer is still providing the show with the man-child it needs. What delight he provided at seeing a Game Boy. Boyer swaggered with assurance when he stated, “I’m more of an uncle.” Yes, seeing nieces in small doses and returning home at night is an easier job than being a full-time father.
Credit where it’s definitely due, Boyer didn’t make Buddy mean-spirited or resentful that his daughter greatly differs from her peers. He even conveyed the requisite sensitivity when he sang, “I should be happy for her” after he’d met Seth, Kimberly’s potential boyfriend.
Justin Cooley, who portrays Seth (in one of the best debut performances of recent seasons), showed such joy in his ability to appreciate anagrams that we started thinking we should get in the fun, too. When he met Kimberly’s father, he didn’t act deferential – not because the lad has a Montana-sized ego, but because he just naturally assumes that everyone is just as open and friendly as he is.
An impressive moment came after Seth easily plopped himself onto a beanbag; Kimberly slowly eased herself into it, reminding us that she’s “old.” It’s such a powerful moment that we must wonder who thought of it: Clark? Stone? Composer Jeanine Tesori? Bookwriter-librettist David Lindsay-Abaire, who started the ball rolling by writing his 2003 play that inspired the musical? We’ll never know for sure.
If these characters weren’t distinctive enough, here arrived the thoroughly amoral Aunt Debra, courtesy of the brilliant performance of Bonnie Milligan. The distinction between good or bad is simply not on her radar. When Kimberly feared that Debra would victimize “sick old ladies,” Milligan proudly rebutted “Not just them!” She’s an equal opportunity scammer.
When Debra tried to recruit Kimberly’s classmates for her next rip-off – and they resisted – how well Milligan shrugged it off, quipping that she could easily get kids from arch-rival West Orange High. That got the kids to cry out, “We’re better than West Orange!”
Seth didn’t. Milligan looked him straight in both eyes and evenly drawled, “If you’re not in, you need to get out.” Milligan exhibited a millimeter of concern for him, but she knew that her challenge implied that if he didn’t go along with her, he simply didn’t have courage. What kid wants to admit that?
That resulted in Cooley’s best musical moment – yes, he can sing, too – as he wondered what he, “The Good Kid,” should do: “Maybe a bit of bad could do a lot of good,” he rationalized in one of Lindsay-Abaire’s best lyrics. Credit Tesori for purposely writing him notes that are slightly flat in “I’m a good guy” – her way of saying that what he claims is not so cut and dried.
Debra’s plan: Kim will dress as a much older woman and the bank will trust this grandmotherly like presence in cashing bad checks. Clark bared her attitude of not only not wanting to commit the crime, but also hating to look even older than she was.
We felt even sadder for her when she arrived home and saw tangible evidence that her parents didn’t value her. Truth to tell, equally sad is that KIMBERLY AKIMBO ultimately believes that two wrongs make a right. But we can’t blame the cast for that.
A better message comes through at the end, accompanied by Tesori’s jaunty melody: “Nobody gets a second chance in life.” No, this cast has now had more than a hundred chances to show its worth. How wonderful that each member is still acting as if this performance is the most important one they’ll ever give – which, for each and every audience, happens to be true.