Only a very special musical could lure Victoria Clark back to the stage. “I’ve mostly been directing and writing,” says Clark, the Tony Award–winning star of The Light in the Piazza and four-time Tony nominee. “I didn’t think I would do another musical, but this one was so unusual and so wonderful, I changed my mind — I just had to do it.”
“This one” is Kimberly Akimbo, one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall season. After receiving uniformly rave reviews at Atlantic Theater Company last winter, and winning the New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critic Circle, and Lucille Lortel awards for Best Musical, the show — featuring Clark’s luminous performance in the title role — will begin previews at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on October 12.
Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play, Kimberly Akimbo centers on a funny, feisty 16-year-old coping with a fictional rapid-aging disease. Inside the body of a 70-year-old, this endearing character is the most mature member of her dysfunctional family. Facing her own mortality, she is determined, with the help of a new friend at school, to spend her days pursuing joy and embracing the wider world.
“She’s funny, she’s independent, and she’s self-reliant,” an admiring Clark says of Kimberly. “We’ve all met spectacular teenagers who are old souls, and she is one of those people. She’s self-aware, but there is something sweet and innocent about her. She’s not worldly, but she is very wise. And she is way braver than I am, so it’s fun to put her skin on and go out into her world.”
Clark is the grounding force in a musical filled with larger-than-life characters — including Kim’s narcissistic parents, felonious aunt, and show choir–loving schoolmates in suburban New Jersey. The show’s smart and witty score by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet), with lyrics and a book by her Shrek collaborator and Pulitzer Prize winner Lindsay-Abaire, takes the audience on an emotional joyride. “Jeanine is arguably our greatest living composer in this genre,” says Clark, “and she’s also incredibly versatile. Her music is always based in character — that’s why it’s so exciting and so much fun for actors to explore. I think this is her best score yet.”
In an evening that veers between farcical comedy and quiet reflection, director Jessica Stone has surrounded Clark with an expert ensemble. “We have an intergenerational company, which is so special,” the actress says of the cast, which ranges from young Broadway newcomer Justin Cooley as Kim’s nerdy, anagram-obsessed soulmate, to Broadway vets Alli Mauzey (Wicked), Steven Boyer (Hand to God), and Bonnie Milligan (Head Over Heels) as her parents and aunt, respectively. “I’m working with the best of the best,” Clark declares, “chameleons who are skilled actors, comedians, and musicians. I’m the oldest person in the room, but we take care of one another, and I soak up the energy of the teenagers. Justin feels like part of my family.”
Looking back on her own teen years in Dallas, Clark says with a laugh, “I was not nearly as cool as Kimberly. I went to an all-girls’ school for 12 years, so I wore the same green-and-white uniform every day. I didn’t have any fashion sense and was nowhere near as self-assured as she is.” And yet Clark, who began studying singing at age 6, feels an affinity with a character who longs to find her place in the world. “I just try to summon that little girl inside of me who is still very present,” she says simply. “I don’t have to dig too far to find her.”
In a career spanning almost 40 years, Clark has repeatedly been drawn to musicals that are, as she puts it, “not standard Broadway fare.” Her first job on the Great White Way after graduating from Yale was as an understudy in Sunday in the Park With George — in the very theatre she will return to this fall. “No one knew what to do with that second act,” she recalls of the Sondheim–Lapine classic. “And what about The Light in the Piazza?” she says of the achingly romantic Adam Guettel–Craig Lucas musical, which earned her a best actress Tony in 2005. “What the heck was going on there? Why was this mother stepping out and addressing the audience directly? I love anything that’s unexpected, and that’s what audiences can expect here [at Kimberly Akimbo]. It’s an original musical that tells a very human story.”
After agreeing to take the role, Clark crafted her performance with her loved ones — including her 28-year-old son, Thomas Luke, and her husband of seven years, Thomas Reidy — in mind. “Before we began rehearsals,” she says, “I sang through a couple of songs for my older brother, and he started weeping. I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ And he said, ‘Something about hearing you sing this material makes me cry.’ When my family and friends came to see it, I felt like I was offering a special gift.” To her surprise and delight, the show resonated equally deeply with every member of the audience. “I realized that everyone has gone through ups and downs,” she says, “and they can identify with this unlikely heroine. We’re all looking at our lives and saying, ‘What can I do better? How can I make more space for the people I love?’”
Though Kimberly Akimbo is the story of a girl whose life may be cut short, “this is a show about living,” Clark stresses. “It’s about turning your life around and deciding to take risks and go after what you want and what you love — choosing to do anything necessary to make your life as beautiful as it can be. That’s so daring, in a way, and so subversive.” Summing up the experience, she says: “You laugh and laugh and laugh, then the show stabs you in the heart, then it kicks you in the butt, and then it sends you out smiling.”
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