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Why Liesl Tommy is the ideal director for Kid Victory
Eclectic isn't a strong enough word to describe Liesl Tommy's directorial resume. At the same time she became the first woman of color to be nominated for a Tony for Best Direction of a Play (she helmed the Liberian Civil War-set drama Eclipsed on Broadway), the South African native was prepping a stage adaptation of Frozen for Disneyland. Tommy's ability to enthusiastically tackle diverse projects -- plays and musicals, big-budget blockbusters and intimate indies -- makes her the perfect director for the genre-defying Kid Victory, currently in previews at the Vineyard Theatre.
Written by John Kander (of Chicago and Cabaret fame) and playwright/lyricist Greg Pierce (who began collaborating with the legendary composer after his original creative partner, Fred Ebb, passed away), this intense one-act musical about the reemergence of a missing Midwestern teen taps into a wide range of emotions. As you learn the backstory of his disappearance, it's undeniably disturbing, and yet there are moments of joy, connection, and absurdity. Even more striking: there really isn't a distinction between dialog and song. One minute the characters are talking and, suddenly, they're singing, and then they return to chatting -- except for Luke, the main character, who, tellingly, never croons a note. The audience rarely claps after numbers for fear it might break the momentum.
According to Tommy, who also directed Kid Victory's world premiere at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre in 2015, that exemplifies the biggest change between the two incarnations. "Before, there was a beginning, middle, and end to scenes," she says. "This version of the script is much more theatrical. It has a more exciting flow, like we're moving from thought to thought instead of scene to scene. We have fantastic vocalists on the stage but we're not focusing on applause; we're focusing on storytelling. The Signature production was quite literal. Now there are a lot of things that take place in a more psychological space. Greg and John did a lot of work in terms of streamlining the journey so you're really in Luke's head. The more heightened moments" -- such as a history lesson led by ghoulish Viking ghosts -- "come from his state of mind."
Tommy became involved with Kid Victory thanks to her longtime friend Pierce, whom she met in 2001 when she directed him in a New York International Fringe Festival show. Since Cabaret is her "favorite musical of all time," Tommy was immediately intrigued by Kander and Pierce's project. "When I first saw the film Cabaret, I realized that musicals could be political and dangerous and have edgy themes," she says. These are the things I'm attracted to in the theatre."
Considering Tommy's proclivities, it's no wonder she fell for Kid Victory. Like Chicago and Cabaret, it doesn't shy away from difficult subjects, however, unlike those classics, it's purposefully got a lot less razzle-dazzle. Audiences are forced to confront its unpleasant themes head-on.
Tommy admits that Kid Victory is not for the faint of heart, especially these days when "we're very emotionally raw. This is the kind of time you just want to watch sitcoms. You feel like everything is a trigger!" And yet she hopes audiences will give Kid Victory a try. "I know it's challenging," she says. "You don't expect this kind of material to be what you tackle in a musical. There's always an adjustment period that I watch the audience go through at the top of the show, and then they settle into it. John is 89, and he's pushing the form of what a musical can be. That to me is so exciting. We're asking audiences to look at what musicals can do in a new way."
Top image: Brandon Flynn and Karen Ziemba. Photos by Carol Rosegg.