There are musicals and then there are 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 it’s based on.)
Kimberly Levaco (Victoria Clark), soon to be 16, is a wise and cheerful teenager living in Bergen County, New Jersey. She has tons of dreams and tons of hope and possibility.
“I want to 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 want to have a fancy cruise on an elegant chartered yacht. I want to fly a kite. I want clog dance! I want to swim at the bottom of a waterfall! I want a butler who is a robot!”
Kimberly also has a rare disease that causes her to age at lightning speed. Despite her age, her body and appearance are many decades older.
And that’s not all. Her parents’ definition of dysfunction is a mess. Barely able to take care of himself, her often drunk father Steven Boyer picks her up from the rink three and a half hours late. Her hypochondriac and pregnant mother, Alli Mauzey, is investing more in her recent carpel tunnel surgery than in her daughter’s grieving death. Kimberly, dedicated to raising her parents, preserves and enforces the Kitchen Oath Jar. Oh, and her crooked Aunt Debra (a priceless Bonnie Milligan) is always hatching a scam or two.
“Playing Kim taught me that it’s okay to be imperfect, fragile, weak, unfinished, raw, out of joint,” says Victoria Clark, who will appear on the show with a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and Music by Jeanine as Kimberly Levaco performs Tesori. “In this case, the imperfection must be accepted and appreciated. That’s new for me.”
Amid all the chaos, each character is endearing in their own way and so very, very funny. The cast brilliantly vacillates between stomach grabbing, milk gushing hilariously one moment and devastatingly heart breaking the next.
“My first thought when I read the script and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire was OK, this thing is FUN. I laughed out loud,” says Clark. “Then Jeanine Tesori called me and played through a few songs so she could hear them in my voice and I couldn’t stop crying. Laughter and tears inhabiting so closely the same space. I was immediately both interested and scared. What a mountain of goodness and skill to climb.”
Playing at the Booth Theater now, Kimberly Akimbo is directed by Jessica Stone and choreographed by Danny Mefford. The show, which premiered 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 14th the Kimberly Akimbo The Broadway cast’s original recording will be available from Ghostlight Records.
A Tony-winning 12 Broadway show veteran, Clark is never one to slow down and also has a luscious 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 by Carnegie Hall in 1991 for its centenary.
Conducted by Ted Sperling and composed by Larry Hochman, December Songs tells the journey of a woman, devastated by heartbreak, walking through Central Park. “I’d like to think that it’s about the human heart – how it can be wounded and still heal and recover,” says Yeston. “And it’s about how memory doesn’t soften or lessen the effects of a loss, but can transform it into a kind of wisdom that is itself less of a thought and more of an emotion.” And music, as the language of emotions, is uniquely suited to expressing and communicating them.” Each song takes the woman on a thoughtful journey that ultimately leads to redemption.
For Clark, who has known Yeston since she took his music theory class at Yale as a freshman and acted in his musical titanic, the songs are bluntly human. “These songs are not all sunshine and joy. Indeed, these themes emerge in the work, but there is also much grief, which then spirals into deep regret and then some peaks of realization and forgiveness. It’s like living a lifetime in one song cycle,” says Clark, who was accompanied by a 37-piece orchestra.
“In December Songs, I like to think that by reliving the ups and downs of this relationship, the protagonist, this woman, has found her roots, her stability, her permanence, and she receives a kind of absolution from the re-saying… one forgiveness,” she adds. “But then again, I’m always looking for grace in my projects, whether specifically on the side, I’m always looking for hope, grace and redemption.”
Jeryl Brunner: The songs in December Songs span so many genres and styles including classic cabaret, jazz, folk, rock and more. How has working on the album challenged and fulfilled you?
Victoria Clark: For me it’s the different styles and genres that make it human. One minute we’re feeling silly and dizzy, the next we’re totally serious, the next dramatic and voluminous. And these are all valid pages of Maury, by the way. He has an amazing access to the emotions and ideas that swirl around in his being. I think that’s what makes him such an extraordinary writer and composer and one of the true masters at respecting and exploring the female psyche in his musical theater characters.
So with these songs, after figuring out what each one means to me and personalizing them as much as possible, I just tried to pop them up and tackle them one at a time and found that the songs themselves did most of the work performed. I think this song cycle is like the sonic equivalent of looking at someone’s EKG. Many peaks and valleys and anticipation. The biggest surprise was hearing Larry Hochman’s impressive and breathtaking orchestrations for the full orchestra. I had only heard the songs with piano. It’s a very different experience singing with so much rich color and orchestral depth.
Jeryl Brunner: Maury, what do you think gives the woman strength and the ability to find joy again in December Songs?
Maury Yeston: I think her strength comes primarily from her vulnerability: allowing herself to take the blows of her rejection, being able to lose it walking up and down a subway platform at 8am , obsessed with what he might be doing right now – pouring coffee? Tie your tie in the mirror? Her anger is palpable. And then, days later, she finds herself in the attic and discovers her grandmother’s love letters from almost a century ago, hidden in a metal box. And as she reads them, she finds solace in that connection. And the healing can begin.
Bruner: In Kimberly AkimboWith everything Kimberly is going through, what do you think gives her this inner sense of hope and possibility?
Clear: Kim is honest and brave, uncompromising and hilarious. Nothing can stop her once she has made up her mind. She has faith and a deep love for her family and she never gives it up. Even at the end, when she has to make a difficult decision, she forgives them. There is a radical selflessness in her.
I wish I could be more of all of these things. I’ve thought a lot about where Kim gets her strength and hope from. She simply believes in a person’s potential for change. If I could summarize Kim in one word, at least today, it would be potential. She lives in the here and now and hopes for the best, but lives neither in the past nor in the future. She’s right here. There is a freedom that restores them and supports their choices.
Brunner: Throughout the show, the cast can quickly go from hilarious to heartbreakingly heartbreaking. How is it for you to live in those emotions on the show??
Clear: It’s an exercise in trust. We have so much trust in the material and in 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’s always a roller coaster ride. I try not to predict where it’s going. And when I look my castmates and co-stars in the eyes, I feel absolutely 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 truths. We carry each other through history. Some nights it’s absolutely devastating for me. Some nights it’s more of a fable and less difficult to tell.
Really good shows like this can take the weight of the actors’ shifting emotions, and I’m very grateful for that. You can’t hide in this role. I’m totally exposed. And the audience can smell a fake. So it gets a little hard on my heart and body from time to time.