John Kander and Greg Pierce present their dark new musical at Vineyard Theatre.
The internet has created more opportunities for strangers to connect than ever before, a fact that should scare the hell out of parents. John Kander and Greg Pierce's Kid Victory imagines the nightmare scenario of an abduction initiated through an online contact. This new musical at Vineyard Theatre employs Kander's instantly recognizable Broadway sound to tell a story that is contemporary, relevant, and brave. The result is the most exciting new musical of the season.
Kander is, of course, one half of the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, composers of musicals like Cabaret and Chicago. Since Fred Ebb's passing in 2004, Kander has found a new partner in playwright Greg Pierce (Her Requiem). While their first collaboration, The Landing, was an uneven trio of one-acts, this full-length show is a testament to the dexterity of the American book musical. As with their first project, Kander composed the music and Pierce wrote the book and lyrics, with both claiming credit for the wholly original story.
It begins with 17-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn) returning to his parents' home in Kansas after spending the previous year as a captive of Michael (Jeffry Denman), a man he met through an online game. His mother (Karen Ziemba) is eager to show him off to her church group (they said thousands of prayers for his safe return). She also wants him to get back to school. Luke would rather get a job working for Emily (the very funny Dee Roscioli) at her lawn store and garden. He forms a bond with this slightly messy single mom, talking to her about things he doesn't feel comfortable discussing with anyone else, like how his dad (Daniel Jenkins, authentically portraying an emotionally muted Midwestern father) won't even look at him anymore. Luke is clearly in need of a confidant: His ex-girlfriend (Laura Darrell) has told Detective Marks (Joel Blum) about how he was acting strange the week before his disappearance. We get the sense that there is more than meets the eye to this story of a family reunited.
This ripped-from-the-tabloids premise could very easily devolve into a musical Lifetime movie: all cheap sensationalism on the surface with very little substance underneath. Thrillingly, Kander and Pierce take a more difficult path. They begin their story after the family reunion, only returning to Luke's captivity in flashbacks. Those scenes are horrifying, but his homecoming is honestly not much better.
Through his consistently lovely music, Kander conveys the discord between what should be and what is. In the aggressive waltz, "You Are the Marble," self-serving do-gooder Gail (Ann Arvia) re-victimizes Luke with her asinine kitchen table psychology (Christopher Windom choreographs the ensemble to encase him in an increasingly violent group hug during this number). When Luke sneaks out to meet Andrew (the delightfully giddy Blake Zoflo), the confident young man performs "What's the Point?", a tap dance about the need to take risks. Michael adds a dissonant voice to this joyful production number, an assertion that his shadow will continue to stalk Luke's adult relationships. Once again, Kander shows off his talent composing for cute, cuddly melodies that bite if you get too close.
Director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) smartly augments the emotional whiplash of the score with her clear and efficient staging. Clint Ramos' detailed unit set depicts Michael's basement. Even though the scenes occur in several different places, we are never able to escape this mental prison. In addition to suggesting different physical spaces, David Weiner's stark lighting creates a shadowy psychic realm in which many of the musical numbers take place. The menacing ensemble maintains a near-constant presence, its pitying collective gaze always trained on our protagonist. As we learned from Kander & Ebb in Cabaret, Zorba!, and The Visit, people are terrible — especially in crowds.
Flynn leads the cast with an unforgettably angst-ridden performance. He pulls at his fingers nervously, perhaps guiltily, every time someone presses him on the details of his absence. With his physicality, he articulates a clear difference between the Luke who went into Michael's lair and the one who came out.
"Your eyes. They used to be such an oceanic blue. I wouldn't have been surprised if a sea turtle swam by," mom tells him. "Now they've gone distinctly gray." Ziemba delivers these lines with matter-of-factness verging on cruelty. Her habitual cheer begins to feel increasingly oppressive. We wonder if Luke escaped from her before he escaped from Michael.
Denman endows Michael with frightening charisma. Sometimes he acts like a big brother to Luke; other times, he's a cult leader. Denman fully commits to Michael's frenzy without turning him into a cartoon villain, a difficult line to walk considering the fact that his eyeglasses conjure Jeffrey Dahmer (evocative costumes by Jacob A. Climer).
Kid Victory takes the clichéd victim narrative and turns it inside out, looking for the complicated truth within. We walk away convinced that not only is this a story that can be told as a musical, but that it must be. The insistent optimism of musical theater perfectly mirrors the way in which society forces victims of trauma into a one-size-fits-all model of recovery, all for our own peace of mind. Kander and Pierce exhibit a mastery of the form and this subject that allow them to break both down.
Also, let's hear it for John Kander: The legendary Broadway composer turns 90 next month and he has written some of his best music for Kid Victory. Not only that, but he is using it to address issues central to our 21st-century existence, all in a manner far more sophisticated than most of his younger colleagues. Kander's program bio announces that he and Pierce have two more shows in the works. They've hit their stride as a team with Kid Victory, so we should all look forward to what they create next.