Haunting, chilling, and totally mesmerizing are just a few words that you could use to describe the second collaboration between legendary composer John Kander (Chicago and Cabaret) and acclaimed playwright Greg Pierce (Slowgirl). After their production of The Landing, which premiered at The Vineyard Theatre in 2013, Kander and Pierce are back at it again with their latest work, Kid Victory, which opened last night at Signature Theatre.
Kid Victory takes the audience on a journey through the assimilation of the seventeen-year-old protagonist Luke (Jake Winn) as he tries to cope with reconnecting with his family and community after vanishing mysteriously for almost an entire year. Luke—who returns an entirely different person profoundly changed by his kidnapping for reasons that are elaborated throughout the musical—struggles to return to the life he once knew. Finding friendship with Emily (Sarah Litzsinger), the quirky proprietor of an offbeat garden shop that struggles to stay afloat, Luke grapples with his life at home while trying to come to terms with his newfound identity, complicated by the tenacity of adolescent angst.
With the story of the days leading to his disappearance interwoven with his present day return, the resulting narrative is complex and thought-provoking as the story is shaped and reshaped at seemingly every turn. As Signature Theatre puts it, “Kid Victory is a hauntingly mesmerizing original musical about what it means to disappear.”
Opening with a jolting group number, “Lord, Carry Me Home” recounts Luke’s joyous return home and the community’s reaction after almost a year of waiting for news of his whereabouts. The orchestrations (orchestrations by Michael Starobin, music supervision by David Loud, and music direction by Jesse Kissel) are rich and layered, and emanated beautifully from the orchestra that was situated above and behind the wide-set stage, ironically, also largely hidden from view.
At the end of the opening number, the stage illuminated with a magnificent backdrop of wheat fields, ultimately serving as the Kansas-inspired backdrop for the three sets situated in the open across the stage: a living room on the left, a bedroom on a pedestal at the center of the stage, and a garden shop on the right. With the cast moving between these three spaces that seamlessly flow into one another guided by changes in lighting (lighting design by David Weiner), Kid Victory presents a simple, though powerful, use of space—creating a single platform by which the story is told. This is particularly poignant when Luke’s bedroom literally revolves, revealing the basement room in which Luke was held captive—a point that is underscored when Luke reveals that the size of his bedroom at home reminds him of the room in which he was held captive.
Upon his return, Luke’s mother joyously recounts the many days she spent waiting for him to return—about how she lit a candle each night at the dinner table until he reemerged. Performing “A Single Tear,” the mother, played by Christiane Noll, delivers a touching performance that would bring tears to any mother’s eyes. Christiane Noll is stunning through the evening, playing a slightly overbearing, but well-intentioned, caricature of a mom. Reminiscing about the bygone days she had spent with her son, she performs a powerful ballad “There Was A Boy” as she yearns for the kind son she once knew.
Sarah Litzsinger as Emily is also a scene-stealer. As a quirky storeowner who befriends Luke, her slightly offbeat nature was accentuated in upbeat, quirky tunes like “Lawn,” where she shares how her lawn as a child growing up was her comfort as she hid from the world of bullies who would tease her for her differences. In a touching moment, Emily performs “People Like Us,” where she identifies with Luke’s experience as an outcast in an effort to ease him.
One of the pivotal moments of the musical is when we meet Luke’s abductor, Michael (Jeffry Denman), whose characterization is complex and becomes textured as the story unfolds. He dazzles as a history teacher in “Vinland,” an upbeat, imaginative number in which he seduces Luke with his knowledge about historical events and general worldliness. Although their relationship eventually culminates in physical abuse (with fight choreography by Michael G. Chin), Denman handles this characterization with finesse—creating an enigmatic character with depth and color under the direction of Liesl Tommy.
To offset the solemn tone of the show, a few lighthearted numbers create a timely break. Donna Migliaccio’s portrayal of pseudo-psychiatrist Gail is compelling in “You Are The Marble,” in which cast members dance about the stage while Gail makes a failed attempt at getting through to Luke. With cast members dancing about with large rubber balls, it was a hilarious intermission (in a show without a true intermission) from the somberness of the topic matter. In the second half, Parker Drown similarly dazzles with a tap number “What’s The Point?,” choreographed by Christopher Windom, as he encourages Luke to live life to the fullest while dancing energetically about the stage.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Kid Victory is that it accomplishes what great storytellers try to do: bring challenging subject matter to audiences in a new, compelling, and thought-provoking light. As a musical that centers upon the rare phenomenon of total disappearance, Kid Victory shines in highlighting the universality of acceptance, companionship, identity, and genuine understanding.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with no intermission.
Read our other review of Kid Victory by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.