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Jim McDermottJune 12, 2023
Victoria Clark, center, in 'Kimberly Akimbo' (photo: Joan Marcus) Victoria Clark, center left, in 'Kimberly Akimbo' (photo: Joan Marcus) 

If you were watching the Tony Awards last night and found yourself saying, “What is this ‘Kimberly Akimbo?’” you would not be alone. While the show ran away with the musical categories of the Tonys, winning Best Actress, Best Featured Actress, Best Book and Score and Best Musical, “Kimberly” lacks the specific appeals of some of its fellow contenders. It’s not based on a well-known movie or story, like “Some Like it Hot,” “New York, New York” or “& Juliet” (or any of the best revival nominees). Though a Broadway legend, lead actress Victoria Clark is not a household name, and many of the rest of the nine-person cast are total unknowns.

Also, the premise is not easy to get your head around. An optimistic teenager with messy-in-a-fun-way parents moves to a new town where she meets a sweet kid, Seth, only to have the arrival of her criminal-in-a-fun-way aunt Debra throw everything into upheaval. The twist is, Kimberly has a disease that is making her age four times as fast as everyone else. So though she’s about to turn 16, she’s played by the 62-year-old Clark.

“Kimberly Akimbo” is about two young people who have an incredibly hopeful perspective on life. But it’s also quietly about childhood trauma.

Maybe that sounds kind of interesting, but what is the story? And what’s with the name?

Most reviews will tell you that “Kimberly Akimbo” is about two young people who have an incredibly hopeful perspective on life. “I like the way you see the world,” Kimberly sings to Seth at the start of the song “Anagram,” while he plays with her name, trying to find an interesting anagram. (Clark and fellow Tony nominee Justin Cooley performed this during the Tony Awards.) “With the turn of a letter, everything’s better…With a change of perspective, nothing’s defective.”

There’s a gentle, joyful buoyancy to Clark’s performance that is infectious. Even now, months after I first saw it, I can still feel the lightness and optimism that she gave to us that night. As Seth, Justin Cooley offers something similar, a smiling, open-to-the-world vulnerability that is almost heartbreakingly innocent. Like recent TV phenomena “Heartstopper” and “Ted Lasso,” this seems to be a musical about the holiness of a life lived in hope.

But what makes “Kimberly Akimbo” resonate so deeply is that it’s quietly about childhood trauma. The disease that Kimberly has is actually a real thing, but it’s also a potent metaphor for the burdens that Kimberly’s family piles upon her. Her parents Buddy and Pattie (Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey) seem hilarious at first; one of the show’s repeated bits involves them each singing into a video camera to the unborn child that Pattie is carrying. But Buddy drinks way too much and Pattie has both her arms in casts after a surgery for carpal tunnel that seems like just a plea for attention. Though she is the child, and the one with a debilitating disease, Kimberly is constantly having to take care of them.

In the end what makes Kimberly such a moving figure, is that she refuses to let her trauma control her.

Then there’s Aunt Debra, who shows up at Kimberly’s school unannounced, insists Kimberly show her where she and her parents are living, and quickly ropes a bunch of Kimberly’s new friends into a fraudulent check-writing scheme. Bonnie Milligan, who won a Tony for the part last night, plays the role with a delicious, deceptive foolishness. Audiences absolutely delight in her outrageousness—like a hillbilly Ursula, she’ll steal your voice, your credit card and your freedom, and yet somehow you’re cheering her on. (And boy, can she belt.)

But Debra is terrifying, too. Every time she comes on stage, she’s like the living embodiment of the tornado that will send Dorothy to Oz. She promises adventure, but you can also feel her spinning so fast, you just know she’s going to tear Kimberly’s life apart.

Clark’s performance as Kimberly is so winning in the face of all this, and the adult characters so entertaining, it’s easy to miss what’s really going on. And indeed “Kimberly Akimbo” is a show about perspective and optimism, just like the reviews say. But unlike say “Heartstopper,” which has so touched L.G.B.T. people of a certain age precisely because it imagines a universe in which they could have had their first experiences of love within a context of acceptance, what makes this musical so powerful is that its optimism is hard-earned. Kimberly stays positive in the face of real suffering and abuse. As on “Ted Lasso,” hope is a choice, and a courageous one.

It’s not a coincidence that as soon as Kimberly refuses to carry the responsibility for her parents and her aunt, her life expands exponentially. Nor is it a surprise that her victory is limited. Some wounds come at a permanent cost.

In the end what makes Kimberly such a moving figure, one I can’t stop telling people to go meet for themselves even though it’s been over 8 months since I first saw the show, is that she refuses to let her trauma control her. She will reach for the good things that life has to offer no matter what. And she will dwell in joy.

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