The new musical “Kimberly Akimbo” has already beguiled New York critics. Now it has to win over Broadway audiences.
Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name, “Kimberly Akimbo” is the story of a teenage girl who is aging so rapidly, she appears to be a woman in her 60s. The musical, which premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company last winter, picked up awards from nearly every organization that hands them out, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. And it’s not surprising: Avoiding the usual Broadway spectacle, the intimate play instead sidles up to its heartbreaking conceit with sucker-punch poignance and oddball comedy.
“The challenge now is to expand what we have without losing this gem of a story,” says director Jessica Stone.
Back in 2008, after collaborating on DreamWorks Animation’s Broadway outing “Shrek the Musical,” Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) and “Fun Home” composer Jeanine Tesori were eager to reteam on something with lower corporate stakes than a Hollywood studio’s bid to turn a film franchise into a Broadway smash. “I wanted to work with Jeanine on a musical like I work on one of my plays,” Lindsay-Abaire recalls. “Something where it’s just us.”
Tesori says it’s a case of opposites attracting. “David is a structuralist, and I operate from complete chaos,” she says, laughing.
After “Wicked” producer David Stone came aboard, the trio developed the show over seven years of demo recordings, readings, labs and attracting talent including Tony winner Victoria Clarke (“The Light in the Piazza”) as Kimberly.
In a timeline set back by the COVID lockdown, “Kimberly Akimbo” finally arrived at the Atlantic in late 2021, just as the theater industry was taking its earliest steps back to life. And after the upheaval and loss of the pandemic, the musical met an audience primed to find particular resonance in a show about learning to live fully and appreciating the fragile life you have.
“It was a complicated time, and people were just so moved by it,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “Just the joy of laughing and crying together.”
“Kimberly Akimbo” wouldn’t be the first musical to reap Broadway rewards after opening at the Atlantic, where “Spring Awakening” originated in 2006 and went on to become a Tony-winning hit. Producer Stone, too, has a track record of finding commercial success with shows that are intimate and unexpected. He brought the quirky comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to Broadway for a run of nearly three years and turned a profit with the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal” at the Booth Theatre, the smaller Broadway house that “Kimberly Akimbo” will call home.
“I love things that catch you by surprise,” says Stone. “It’s a great driver of success and of word-of-mouth. I think that audiences love when they come in thinking a show is going to be one thing and it ends up delivering more and different than they expect.”
For Jessica Stone, “Kimberly Akimbo” marks the Broadway directing debut of an actor who has spent the past decade helming productions around the country, including a 2017 Boston staging of Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Ripcord.” That was the gig that led to “Kimberly.”
“My plays can be tonally a little tricky to maneuver,” the playwright says. “There’s a certain inappropriate humor that’s grounded in emotion. Jessica cleared all those hurdles expertly.”
Since the Atlantic, the script and score of “Kimberly Akimbo” have also undergone some revisions, as is common for any show moving to Broadway. “Even if it’s just a small shift, those small things add up,” Tesori says. “Musicals absolutely thrive in the details.”