By Naomi Serviss / New York City
A big splashy Broadway extravaganza, Kimberly Akimbo is not.
It’s The Little Engine That Did, a quiet, seriously funny musical about a 15-year-old (soon to be 16) girl born with a fatal disease akin to progeria. It garnered five Tony Awards on June 11, including one for Best Musical.
Still think it’s depressing?
Trust me, it’s not a downer. It’s thrillingly upbeat at times, hilarious in unexpected ways and engaging always. Even when on the verge of tears, they will be happy tears. Bittersweet tears.
Teenager Kimberly (inhabited fearlessly by Victoria Clark, 63) looks like a sixtysomething.
Wrinkles, thinning hair and still able to get up from a bean bag chair (with a little help from her friends).
She’s young in spirit, nibbling on her rainbow-colored candy charm necklace when nervous, dressed in embroidered jumpers and girly hair accessories. (Costumes by Sarah Laux.)
Kimberly is determined to have it all before she ages over and out. Having it all means: a robot butler, road trips and puppy love.
Maybe even a kiss.
Kimberly Akimbo, based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s moving play, first premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2022,. With added music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire, the play is a poignant nod to underlying themes of mortality, parenthood, morality and
Kimberly’s geekiness is matched by classmate Seth Weetis (winningly portrayed by Justin Cooley), whose talents include creating complex anagrams and wordplay.
It’s a funny musical about death! Like The Seventh Seal! The jokes will keep you laughing between shadows of sadness.
Kimberly’s mom (Alli Mauzey) is a basket case hypochondriac who accumulates ailments as the plot unfolds. When mom ends up with both arms in casts, Kimberly becomes her mother’s keeper
in a simple twist of fate.
Her often-missing dad (Steven Boyer) is clueless on all the levels. He means well, but is too dense to follow through on promises unkept. He’s disappointed Kimberly all of her strange life.
Then, in a surprise move, gives her something she’s been dreaming of: Passes to Great Adventure! Too bad they’ve expired.
In the basement, grifter Aunt Debra (Bonnie Milligan) is master-planning a check forging scheme.
The youth ensemble is a nifty batch of gifted high school classmates who are not only triple-threats (They sing! They dance! They act!) but ice skate to boot!
Yes, there is ice skating -- a marvel to behold! Especially when Clark effortlessly whirls around the rink like a proper teen on the cusp of death.
The scenic design is magical (David Zinn, lighting by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew). Each character has a chance to shine in individual songs, which paint personality pictures that
shine a light on these kids’ core.
Remember that feeling of being the outsider in school? That creepy sense of being judged by the cooler kids? Wearing the wrong brooch and made fun of? Many end up in the school theater programs. As did I. Home was the glee club and performing arts clubs in school.
Other outsiders were there, as well. Like seeks like, as Kimberly finds out.
One of the myriad highlights of this charming musical is when Seth (the nerdy anagram kid) sings Good Kid, a self-descriptor of his good kindness. Always deemed the Boy Scout, bookworm and math nerd.
He, like his fellow classmates (including Kimberly) are about to act against type and become foils for Aunt Debra in her dastardly check-forging scheme. What’s the temptation for a bunch of school-choir nerds to risk all for some Benjamins?
Why, for fancy, flashy, sequined costumes, of course. Yes, there’s a payoff at the finale.
Seth, Kimberly’s lab partner, thinks Kimberly should present a report on her aging disease.
She’s not keen. Seth, a talented tuba player, works at the local ice rink.His anagram-love may be a key to the story’s multiple themes.
Who’s the audience for this musical that’s assuredly not on your radar? EVERYONE! It’s YA-friendly with multi-generational-appeal!
As my daughter Emily used to say about Jeffy’s,
a favorite restaurant, “It’s got everything! Something for everybody!”
This show is ultimately a feel-good, equanimous love letter to life and carpe diem.
It’s about seeing things from a different perspective, walking a mile and all that jazz.
Kimberly will nudge you to re-examine life’s priorities, given the limited time we have on Mother Earth.
New York City visitors might not want to chance paying big bucks for an unknown show. There are plenty of other in-your-face musicals with gutsy dancing, barely-there costumes and jaw-dropping
gymnastics, but they’re confections (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Poof. Gone in a flash.
Kimberly Akimbo will haunt you after seeing it. I’m still thinking about that grabber of a finale.
Don’t miss this show—you’ll thank me when it’s over.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com