Kid Victory continues at the Vineyard Theatre, New York until 19 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Composer John Kander, the music theatre treasure now heading into his 90th year, continues his collaboration with playwright Greg Pierce, some 50 years his junior, with Kid Victory. Their second show together, it’s an affecting coming-of-age tale.
With book and lyrics by Pierce and story credited to both Kander and Pierce, it’s also one of the darkest in the entire canon of Kander, whose celebrated four-decade partnership with the late lyricist Fred Ebb produced such blazingly entertaining but bleakly themed works as Chicago, Cabaret, The Scottsboro Boys and The Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Their final show to open on Broadway was hardly a ray of sunshine either: The Visit, about a fantastically wealthy old woman who corrupts a whole town in seeking murderous revenge against a former lover who spurned her in her youth.
Mounted Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theatre, Kid Victory centres on 17-year-old Luke, who returns to his home in a small Midwestern town after a year of being held captive by an older man named Michael.
In flashbacks scattered through the show, we learn what happened. Luke connected with Michael on the internet, in a game site for boating enthusiasts that allowed them to build their imaginary boats and race them. Luke named his boat Kid Victory.
When Michael suggests an actual meeting, Luke acquiesces. Their rendezvous climaxes with Luke being drugged, overpowered, manacled and finding himself a prisoner in a basement. Michael is alternately brutal and loving. An ex-history teacher, he gives his prisoner morning history lessons. Luke’s captivity ends shockingly, and he is free.
But now at home, Luke is lost, unable to connect with his parents, especially his deeply caring but annoyingly overbearing mother, confident – along with her churchgoing circle – that school and church are all the medicine her son needs.
The thought of returning to school fills Luke with dread. He is filled with inner turmoil over his complex feelings for Michael – love, anger, hatred – and his own guilt in perhaps being complicit in his captivity.
He finds temporary solace working at a lawn supply store owned by a free-spirited older woman who quickly becomes a soulmate. But this ends when she reneges on her suggestion that they escape to a distant commune.
Finally, Luke realises that to find himself he has to go off on his own. As he’s packing up to do so, his resolve is further strengthened by an unexpected rapprochement with his father. It makes for a moving climax for a show whose moods are sometimes uncertain and even jarring.
For example: late in the show, Luke giving in to his gay leanings, arranges on line for a hook-up with a guy in town, but when they meet he is reluctant. To convince him to give in, the date, Andrew, sings an up-tempo song – ‘What’s the Point’ – about how life has no meaning without excitement and daring. Andrew also breaks into a tap dance, which leads into a production number, with townspeople incongruously dancing out onto the stage and joining in. It’s a delightful number, but it also comes across as an overly deliberate attempt to add some razzmatazz before we see the violent end to Luke’s captivity.
Despite such moments, the story holds together thanks in large part to the fluid staging of Liesl Tommy and a top-notch nine-person cast.
Brandon Flynn as Luke gives the show a compelling centrepiece. You can almost see his youthful nerves jangling. You can definitely feel his pain.
Jeffry Denman tempers the menace of Michael with convincing shows of affection, while Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins draw well-rounded portraits of Luke’s parents.
Dee Roscioli is an engaging figure as the quirky shop owner, and Laura Darrell makes the most of the quasi-torch song sung by Luke’s former high school girlfriend.
There are also solid turns by Blake Zolfo as Andrew, and Ann Arvia and Joel Blum as various townspeople.
The cluttered-looking set by Clint Ramos nonetheless efficiently accommodates the script’s multiple locales, aided by David Weiner’s lighting.
Truly elevating the entire proceedings is Kander’s music. He has composed a bountiful score, filled with lustrous settings for Pierce’s persuasive lyrics, which while filled with plot references have the potential to stand alone in performer’s audition music books.
Full-blown ballads are graced with easy and beautiful melodic lines. There are also a quietly rousing hymn, character songs, up-tempo numbers that captivate with Kander’s signature way with syncopation, and catchy fragments integrated into dialogue.
It’s vintage musical theatre, borne anew and sung flawlessly in both solos and ensembles, all of it enhanced by Michael Starobin’s orchestrations for the 10-piece orchestra conducted by Jesse Kissel.
It has its occasional bumps, but all in all, Kid Victory is a senior triumph for Kander and colleagues.
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