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The Broadway vet never imagined she'd play 16 again, then Kimberly Akimbo came along
Known for her performances in Broadway musicals, including a resplendent fairy godmother in Cinderella, an imperious nun in Sister Act and a lonely and concerned mother in The Light in the Piazza, for which she won a Tony Award, Victoria Clark was actually concentrating on her first love, directing, when the pandemic hit. The luminous soprano had recently made her Off-Broadway directorial debut with The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company and was set to helm Love Life at City Center Encores! with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kate Baldwin. Then everything stopped.
"It was like being thrown from a speeding car," Clark recalls. "It was pedal to the metal to get the show ready, and we had just finished our first run-through."
Like so many in the industry, she hoped theatres would only be closed for a month or two. But as the crisis continued, her next project, starring in the new musical Kimberly Akimbo, was also put on hold indefinitely.
"Everything was up in the air," she says. "I won't mince words: It was a devastating time—for our industry and for me personally."
After "an absolutely grueling" hiatus, Clark is finally back on stage in Kimberly Akimbo, which is having its belated premiere Off Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company. Based on David Lindsay-Abaire's bittersweet play of the same name, the musical centers on Kimberly Levaco, a typical bright, awkward, '90s suburban teen save for a rare disease that ages her prematurely. Although she's on the cusp of 16, she appears to be in her sixties, yet she still desires all the things her peers do: a clique, a boyfriend, parents who pay attention to her and aren't weird… or fugitives—this is a dark musical comedy after all. With a book and lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire and music by his Shrek the Musical collaborator Jeanine Tesori, the production has received the kind of glowing reviews that often portend a Broadway transfer. And it's given Clark a rich leading role in an industry that too often relegates its seasoned leading ladies to supporting parts.
Still, when Clark was initially approached about playing Kimberly, she felt a lot of trepidation. "I thought it was super risky," she says. "We've all seen grown-ups play kids, and I didn't want her to be a cartoon or a stereotype." But Tesori and director Jessica Stone were old friends—all three had worked together on the 1995 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. So Clark came in to talk about the part and sing a few songs and all involved decided it was a great fit.
How did she research being a teen again? "I kind of just pulled from my own memories," says Clark. "I also watched a lot of teens getting on and off subways, or anytime I saw a group gathered, I studied their behavior." The way she inhabits the character physically is uncanny—she has perfected the adolescent slouch and eyeroll (my 16-year-old daughter who saw the show with me confirms this). Authenticity was Clark's goal, but it took her many weeks of experimenting to find Kimberly. "I didn't realize how shut down I had become during the pandemic until I got back into the rehearsal room," she says. "It was really hard to find my footing again, and I had mostly been directing for the last few years. I had to really dig down to find this character. Early on, sometimes she felt like she was five, and sometimes she felt like she was my age. I have to truly, truly believe I'm 16 for the audience to believe it, and that takes a lot of focus and concentration."
The performers playing Kimberly's classmates are much closer to their high school years, especially Justin Cooley, who portrays her anagram-obsessed, tuba-playing crush Seth. A 2021 Jimmy Awards finalist and college freshman majoring in musical theatre at Texas Christian University, Cooley is making an impressive professional debut opposite Clark and the two have remarkable chemistry.
"We know we do!" says Clark. "We noticed that we felt it the first time we met and it's beautiful." Still, given the disparity in their ages and experience, they trod lightly. "We talked about it a lot," she says. "I've been in the business nearly 40 years; he's just starting out. We're at opposite ends of our careers really. And we worked with an intimacy coach who spoke to us about the power dynamics of any physical exchanges we had." Despite all that, "I don't think of him as my younger colleague. I think of him as a peer. That's really, really important. I never for one second thought about our relationship as odd. Because, again, on stage I believe that I am this 16-year-old girl."
Clark doesn't know what's next after Kimberly Akimbo ("I've stopped trying to plan out my career—every time I do it switches), but she has some hopes. She hopes Love Life will happen eventually. She hopes she'll direct more. And she hopes that Kimberly Akimbo has a future after the twice-extended Atlantic run wraps up on January 15, 2022. ("That's up to the powers that be, luckily, that's not me.")
For the moment, she says she's and focusing on "tenderness and kindness, they're really everything right now" in our pandemic-rattled world. "A lot of this journey for me has been turning some of that kindness inward and learning from this character how to overcome obstacles. Part of what is challenging for me is remembering that this is a show about living, not dying. It's a piece about fortitude. Kimberly has taught me a lot about that."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo at the Atlantic Theater Company. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
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