A young girl trapped in an old lady’s body? Is this half a remake of Freaky Friday? Or maybe a gender reversal of the Tom Hanks hit Big? Not really. Kimberly Levaco, the central character in the new Broadway musical Kimberly Akimbo—based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play, set in 1999 New Jersey—doesn’t undergo any kind of spooky body switch. She happens to have a progeria-like genetic disorder that has her looking 72 but acting like the teen she is—at first, anyway. Aging at four to five times the normal rate and cursed with ailments that make her life expectancy somewhere around age 16, she happens to be 15 and about to have a birthday. By which time, after what she’s been through, she will have matured almost as much as she’s aged.
Of course, Kimberly would love to make a magical switch to normalcy. “Make a Wish”—a standard but lovely “I Want” song, meaning a number that generally comes early in a musical and spells out what the lead character longs for—has her yearning to know what it’s like to be a fashionista running from paparazzi in her designer shoes. She’d also love to get just one home-cooked meal. Her parents are way odder than she is: Mom is not only not exactly Rachael Ray, she is pregnant again and determined not to have another Kimberly. What’s more, she’s a hypochondriac, and when she’s not inventing reasons to worry about her health she makes neurotic video diaries addressed to the unborn child. Dad is usually either driving drunk or driving people crazy with his hair-trigger mood changes and broken promises. The two are well-meaning but extremely immature for people in middle-aged bodies.
At school, Kimberly encounters a sort of Greek chorus of four Evan Hansen–like misfit teens, all full of unrequited love and Dreamgirls obsessions. But two other irrepressible characters manage to step in and turn her world upside down. First is Seth, a brainy teen who loves anagrams (“Kimberly Levaco,” he announces triumphantly, can easily morph into “Cleverly Akimbo”) and has an appealing spirit that Kimberly falls for, though he’s getting tired of being “the good kid” all the time. (He comes from a broken home and always strives to be the person who tries to glue things back together.) Given a school assignment to discuss a disease of their choice, Kimberly and Seth do a joint presentation focusing on her condition, a bad idea that has her freaking out in front of the class and realizing that they should have stuck to their original topic—glaucoma. Dad notices the chemistry developing between the two teens and suddenly becomes protective, memorably barking at Seth, “She can clean her own muffin crumbs!” (Just see the show. I don’t want to give away every crumb.)
Second is Aunt Debra, who has swept in like a multi-vortex tornado and lured our vulnerable heroine to the dark side. In fact, she’s literally entered through the window, and plans to stay for a while. Debra is a lifetime con artist who’s trying to stay out of jail, though she doesn’t seem to mind helping others find their way there. She uses a stolen mailbox to teach the kids how to fish for checks and then wash them, a scam that interests Kimberly, who wants money for her family to go on a trip, since Dad nabbed theme park tickets that turned out to be invalid. (One con begets another.) Seth also lights up at the scheme, finally seeing his chance to put down his tuba and be bad.
Bonnie Milligan is a comic powerhouse as Debra, singing about how wrong it is that “Nobody gets what they want” and directing the kids to “Sing it!” (they obediently parrot her musical phrase), then commanding ”In harmony!” (they oblige, in four-part tones). “When life gives you lemons,” she croons, “you gotta go out and steal some apples / Because who the fuck wants lemons?” Milligan gets rousing applause for the number—called “Better”—and though I felt weird cheering a sort of more likable version of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the naughty ebullience of it all is irresistible, and Milligan drives it home with unrepentant glee.
The show’s music, by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home; Caroline, or Change) spans ballads, pop, and nouveau teen-angst-meets-Tin-Pan-Alley sounds, while Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics are witty and character-driven. Setting this apart from so many musical adaptations, the songs feel organic, not just plopped into the script to make for some obvious exposition or a dancing interlude.
Tony winner Victoria Clark—who’s 63—is the soul of the show, playing Kimberly with subtlety, pathos, and beautiful singing. The script’s wacky doings lead to Kimberly’s serious realization that the other kids need to grow up (“Getting older is my affliction / Getting older is your cure,” she sings). But the grownups obviously need some maturing too. Various domestic revelations culminate with Kimberly begging her parents to let go of “the ghost of a girl I‘ll never be” and to accept her as she is—urging them to see her right now. That song, “Before I Go,” is rivetingly heartfelt as performed by Clark, but—unlike Milligan’s boisterous number—the audience is given no chance to applaud afterward, since it segues right into the next moment. That proved to me that this show doesn’t pander, but damn, I wanted to clap like a maniac!
Justin Cooley is blissfully good as the anagram-crazed Seth, with sterling comic timing that he makes true to character. Alli Mauzey and Steven Boyer are funny and believable as the tragically flawed parents, and as the kids, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Nina White, and Michael Iskander manage to carve unique personas yet still blend together in their shared otherness. Jessica Stone has provided interesting directorial touches, such as a driving scene where the characters bounce around the car in unison while singing, and a Levaco family sequence, during which the kitchen table rotates as their belated stab at normalcy—a birthday party for Kimberly, for which Dad even got a cake—spins apart. David Zinn’s sets—including an all-too-apt-looking suburban ice skating rink—lend pizzazz, and the orchestra is strategically placed on the upper level.
The theme is not just to enjoy life while it lasts; it’s a heightened riff on the fact that kids grow up so quickly and you can’t pin them down. Some grow up way faster than others! (“I went through menopause four years ago!” Kimberly admits at one point.) The fact that Kimberly has delved into shady territory to achieve her goals again brings up an Evan Hansen–like moral ambiguity. Naively, Kimberly somehow convinces herself that people won’t be hurt by her actions; in many ways, she’s still 16. The resulting musical —which premiered to raves and honors off-Broadway last year—manages to exude both quirkiness and heart without being relentless or corny about either. I doubt that this show will ever get old to me. It’s an apple. ❖
Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.