Broadway and Hollywood have a habit of casting adults as teenagers, and so often, it doesn't work. Stockard Channing was 34 when she played Rizzo in Grease. Ben Platt was 27 playing 17 in the recent Dear Evan Hansen movie. Grumbles abound. Now, we have 62-year-old Tony winner Victoria Clark as a 16-year-old in David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori's new musical Kimberly Akimbo at the Atlantic Theater Company, but she winds up presenting the counterargument — she's incredible, and the show is pretty damn delightful, too.
Based on one of Lindsay-Abaire's early plays, Kimberly Akimbo is a fractured family story. At the center is Kim (Clark), an extremely bright New Jersey teenager who happens to have a disease that ages her body at four times the normal rate; thus, she looks like she's significantly older. Her father (Steven Boyer) dulls the pain this causes with booze; her pregnant mother (Alli Mauzey) has convinced herself that she's the one dying and is recording videos for her new baby to remember her by. The ostensible plot follows Kim's bourgeoning friendship with Seth (Justin Cooley), an anagram-loving geek who works at the local ice-skating rink, and the sudden return of her aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan), who has been living in the school library and convinces Kim and her friends to take part in a money-laundering scheme.
Oftentimes, when a writer adapts their work for a different medium, say, screen to stage, you'll find that the new product hews too closely to the original to completely justify the jump. In that regard, Kimberly Akimbo is the opposite, too: Lindsay-Abaire pays reverence to one of the plays that launched his career by keeping the tentpoles of the plot the same, but he finds convincing ways to make all of these outsized people and their giant feelings sing (a four-member ensemble of nerdy high schoolers, for instance, are introduced to add both practical backup and show that Kim actually has friends). Tesori, his composer on Shrek (a better musical than a lot of people give it credit for), provides a light and fun score that matches the witty intelligence of his lyrics (a more pleasing rhyme than "I'll run from paparazzi/and throw some diva fits/then hurry to a photo shoot/with Annie Leibovitz" I have not heard recently).
But the writers are exploring both the follies of youth and the misfortune of time, and I wish they and director Jessica Stone had leaned a little further into that darkness. After all, this is a family tragedy (albeit one so hilarious you'll shake), and when the material does veer into that territory late in the second act, the tone doesn't really shift. A gutting moment in the play — Kim dressing as a granny as part of Debra's scheme and everyone finally seeing her body finally match her clothes — only evokes that emotion here because of Clark's open-faced and vulnerable performance. As a result, the musical doesn't feel as deep as the play, which really keeps this material from reaching its full potential.
I hasten to add, Kimberly Akimbo is still worthwhile viewing, with a cast that couldn't be better. In addition to Clark (who is so convincing, especially in Sarah Laux's costumes, that I really can't get over it), Stone has elicited a performance of megawatt comic proportions out of Milligan, who steals the show every single time she's on stage, and a thoroughly charming one from Cooley, a young actor making his New York stage debut as a 62-year-old's love interest. Boyer and Mauzey deliver impeccable work as well.
In an era when musical adaptations do nothing more than pad dialogue with unnecessary songs, Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori have found a smart way of making Kimberly Akimbo sing. And while I'll still argue that adults shouldn't play teenagers, I'll make Victoria Clark the exception. When you see the show, you'll understand why.