You’ve never met a girl quite like the one-of-a-kind title character in the critically acclaimed new musical Kimberly Akimbo. As she gets set to celebrate her 16th birthday, Kimberly juggles schoolwork, life with her hilariously dysfunctional family, and thoughts of her own mortality. In this unusual coming-of-age story, our heroine has the spirit of a teenager and — due to the effects of a rare genetic abnormality — the appearance of a rapidly aging 70-year-old. After a sold-out Off-Broadway run and multiple Best Musical awards, Kimberly Akimbo is headed to Broadway’s Booth Theatre on October 12, starring Tony Award winner Victoria Clark.
“We’re taking the audience on a funny, moving, off-kilter roller coaster ride,” says David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his 2001 play in collaboration with Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. Having penned the splashy 2008 Broadway tuner Shrek the Musical, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori decided to tackle a character-driven piece centering on a not-so-typical suburban family. “The footprint is small, but the impact is big,” Tesori says of Kimberly Akimbo. “It has David’s unbelievable sense of humor and his incredible heart. Laughing and crying in the same scene is rare, but that’s David’s trademark.” For his part, Lindsay-Abaire praises Tesori’s “amazing ability to crack open a character’s heart” with her music. “She makes a 16-year-old girl from New Jersey sing, just as she did in Caroline, or Change, Fun Home, and all her other shows. Everything she writes is specific to that piece and those voices. She is just the best.”
The irresistible oddballs surrounding Kimberly include a trio of adult narcissists (her pregnant mother, alcoholic dad, and scheming aunt), a pop-flavored “chorus” of her classmates, and an endearingly nerdy new friend named Seth (18-year-old Justin Cooley in a breakthrough performance). With songs and dialogue that veer in a flash from zany to poignant, the show required a director perfectly in tune with its shifting tone. Enter Jessica Stone, a veteran Broadway actress who transitioned to directing a decade ago and impressed Lindsay-Abaire with her work on his play Ripcord. “Jessica understands that a play can be deeply moving and ridiculously funny at the same time,” he explains. “She gets my weird humor and knows how to walk that line.”
The moment Stone read the script and heard the score, she realized Kimberly Akimbo had the makings of a theatrical event. “It’s a beautiful story laced with absurdity and a score that grounds it all with heart and texture,” she says. “In the face of this fictional aging disease, Kimberly is making choices to have the best life possible. Her body is falling apart, but she chooses to go ice skating; her parents are a mess, but she chooses to take care of her family; she dreams of going on a road trip and chooses to make a new friend. In every instance, she chooses life.”
It helps, of course, that this complex character is being played by Victoria Clark, star of The Light in the Piazza and, coincidentally, Stone’s castmate in the 1995 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “Vicki brings wisdom and humor and emotion in such an effortless way,” the director says. “When she sings a song for the first time, you can hear a pin drop in the rehearsal room. She is a great leader in a company that’s a mix of experienced actors and young artists making their New York debuts.”
Crafting a juicy role for an older actress inspired Lindsay-Abaire, both in his original production as a play (which starred his longtime muse Marylouise Burke) and the musical adaptation. “We sort of had to talk Vicki into taking the part,” he says with a laugh, “but when she came in and read through some scenes, it was obvious to everyone that she has the spirit of a 16-year-old girl. She inhabits the character fully and brings so much honesty to the role.”
Time is an unseen character in the show, as Kimberly ponders what to request from the Make-a-Wish Foundation of New Jersey. A cruise? A treehouse? A day of modeling? (What she really wants is a home-cooked dinner and pleasant mealtime conversation with her parents.) After more than two years of COVID restrictions, the question of how to use one’s time wisely resonates with audiences, “whether it’s 16 years or a long life,” as Tesori, who recently turned 60, puts it. Kimberly Akimbo “is very much about living in the moment and appreciating what you have,” adds Lindsay-Abaire. “That’s a universal theme, but coming out of the pandemic, I think it rings particularly true.”
As Kimberly takes charge of her uncertain future, the musical provides theatergoers with what Stone calls “a tap on the back” to pursue their own passions. “This is a quirky, hilarious tale that reminds people to choose love and adventure,” she says. “The book and score moved me to tears and made me feel seen and heard — and the show is not even about a person like me. I think audiences will see and hear themselves in this material, which is something that doesn’t happen very often.”
The collaborators agree that the best thing about opening Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway this fall is providing the opportunity for more people to see it. Tesori is especially excited about seeing her creation in one of Broadway’s most intimate spaces. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to do a show at the Booth Theatre,” she says. “[The home of musicals such as] Once on This Island, Sunday in the Park With George, and Next to Normal. I love that theatre, and I love the idea that we’ve written a classic musical. It sounds hokey, but I think of this show as our offering — with so much bad news out there, we’re offering the audience something else for a couple of hours. I want to make people laugh and cry and leave the theatre thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I won’t get a second time around. I’m going to go call my mother!’”
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