There are musicals and then there’s Kimberly Akimbo. Hailed as a standout in an already stellar theater season, the show is most likely unlike anything you’ve seen before. (Unless you’ve seen the play on which it was based.)
About to turn 16, Kimberly Levaco, (Victoria Clark), is a wise and joyful teenager living in Bergen County, New Jersey. She has armfuls of dreams and buckets of hope and possibilities.
“I wanna be a model for a day, a famous fashion muse, in a black Dior cocktail dress and a pair of Jimmy Choos,” she sings. “I wanna take a fancy cruise on a swanky chartered yacht. I wanna hang-glide. I wanna clog dance! I wanna swim at the bottom of a waterfall! I want a butler who’s a robot!”
Kimberly also has rare disease that causes her to rapidly age at lightning speeds. Despite her age, her body and appearance are many decades older.
And that’s not all. The very definition of dysfunction her parents are a mess. Barely able to take care of themselves, her often drunk dad, Steven Boyer, picks her up from the skating rink three and a half hours late. Her hypochondriac and pregnant mother, Alli Mauzey, is more invested in her recent carpel tunnel surgery than her daughter’s increasing demise. Devoted to parenting her parents Kimberly keeps and enforces the kitchen swear jar. Oh, and her felonious aunt Debra, (a priceless Bonnie Milligan), is always cooking up a scam or two.
“Playing Kim has taught me it’s all right to be imperfect, frail, weak, unfinished, raw, unhinged,” says Victoria Clark, who stars as Kimberly Levaco in the show with a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. “In this case, the imperfection is to be embraced and cherished. This is new for me.”
Amid all the chaos, every character is lovable in their own way and so very, very funny. The cast brilliantly teeters between being stomach grabbing, milk-pouring-out-of-your-nose hilarious, in one moment while being devastatingly heart breaking the next.
“My first thought when I read the script and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire was OK, this thing is FUNNY. I was laughing out loud,” says Clark. “Then Jeanine Tesori called me and played through a couple of the songs, so she could hear them in my voice, and I couldn’t stop crying. Laughter and tears so closely inhabiting the same space. I was instantly both interested and terrified. What a mountain of goodness and skill to climb.”
Now playing at the Booth Theatre, Kimberly Akimbo is directed by Jessica Stone and choreographed by Danny Mefford. The show, which has its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company and won Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical, also stars Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander, and Nina White. On February 14 the Kimberly Akimbo original broadway cast recording, will be available on Ghostlight Records.
Never one to slow down, Clark, a Tony-winning veteran of 12 Broadway shows also has a lush new album, “December Songs for Voice and Orchestra” on PS Classics. Written by composer Maury Yeston, the album is the first orchestral version of his song cycle, originally commissioned in 1991 by Carnegie Hall for their centennial.
Conducted by Ted Sperling and scored by Larry Hochman, “December Songs” recounts the journey of a woman, devastated by a heartbreak, who is walking through Central Park. “I’d like to think it’s about the human heart—how it may be wounded, and yet heal and recover,” says Yeston. “And it’s about how memory doesn’t soften or weaken the impact of a loss but can convert it into a kind of wisdom that itself isn’t as much a thought as it is an emotion. And music, being the language of emotions, is uniquely suited to portray and communicate them.” Each song brings the woman on a reflective journey that ultimately leads her to redemption.
For Clark, who has known Yeston since she was a freshman taking his music theory class at Yale and was in his musical Titanic, the songs are unapologetically human. “These songs aren’t all sunshine and joy. Actually, those themes do come up in the work, but there is also a lot of grief, then spiraling down into some deep regrets, and then volcano-ing up to some peak moments of realization and forgiveness. It’s like living a full life in one song cycle,” says Clark who was accompanied by a 37-piece orchestra.
“In December Songs, I like to think that the protagonist, this woman, has found her roots again, her stability and her steadiness through re-living the high and low points of this relationship, and she receives a kind of absolution from the re-telling… a forgiveness,” she adds. “ But then again, I am always looking for grace in my projects, whether specifically on the page, I always look for hope, grace, and redemption.”
Jeryl Brunner: The songs in “December Songs” contain so many genres and styles, including cabaret classical, jazz, folk, rock and more. How did working on the album challenge and fulfill you?
Victoria Clark: To me the different styles and genres are what make it human. One minute, we feel silly and giddy, the next we are totally serious, the next dramatic and voluminous. And these are all valid sides to Maury by the way. He has impressive access to the emotions and ideas that swirl around in his being. I think this is what makes him such an extraordinary writer and composer, and one of the real masters of respecting and exploring the female psyche in his musical theater characters.
So, with these songs, after I figured out what each meant to me and personalizing them as much as possible, I just tried to show up and tackle them one by one, and found the songs themselves did most of the work. I think this song cycle is like the aural equivalent of looking at someone’s EKG. Lots of peaks and valleys and anticipation. The biggest surprise was hearing Larry Hochman’s evocative and breathtaking orchestrations for the full orchestra. I had only heard the songs with piano. This is a very different experience to sing with so many rich colors and orchestral depth.
Jeryl Brunner: Maury, in “December Songs” what do you think gives the woman strength and capacity to find joy once more?
Maury Yeston: I believe her strength comes first from her vulnerability: her allowing herself to bear the blows of her rejection, her being able to lose it as she paces up and down a subway platform at eight in the morning obsessed with what he maybe be doing right now—pouring coffee? Tying his tie in the mirror? Her anger is palpable. And then from there, days later, she finds herself in the attic, uncovering her grandmother’s love letters from almost a century earlier, hidden in a metal box. And, reading them, she finds solace in that connection. And healing can begin.
Brunner: In Kimberly Akimbo, with all Kimberly is going through, what do you believe gives her that inner sense of hope and possibility?
Clark: Kim is honest and brave, uncompromising, and hilarious. Nothing can stop her once she makes her mind up. She has trust and a deep love for her family, and she never gives up on them. Even at the end, when she has a tough choice to make, she forgives them. There is a radical unselfishness within her.
I wish I could be more of all those things. I’ve thought a lot about where Kim gets her strength and her hope. She just believes in a person’s potential to change. If I could sum up Kim in one word, today at least, it would be potential. She lives in the here and now, and hopes for the best, but doesn’t live in either the past or the future. She’s right here. There is a freedom that restores her and supports her choices.
Brunner: Throughout the show the cast is able to quickly evolve from being hilarious to devastatingly heartbreaking. What is it like for you to live in those emotions in the show?
Clark: It is an exercise in trust. We trust the material so very deeply, and our creative team led by our brilliant director Jessica Stone, our musical director Chris Fenwick and our creators, David and Jeanine. All we have to do is let go and inhabit the story. It is always a roller coaster ride. I try not to predict where it is going. And when I look in the eyes of my castmates and scene partners, I feel completely safe. They are the most amazing actors I have ever worked with: Justin Cooley, Bonnie Milligan, Alli Mauzey, and Steven Boyer are all outstanding, original and full of surprises and truth. We carry one another through the story. Some nights it is absolutely devastating for me. Some nights it’s more of a fable and less difficult to tell.
Really good shows like this one can bear the weight of changing tides of emotions from the actors, and for that I am very grateful. There is no place to hide in this role. I am completely exposed. And the audience can smell a phony. So it does get to be a little hard on my heart and body from time to time.