Review #2: ‘Kid Victory’ at Vineyard Theatre

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When seventeen-year-old Luke returns home to small-town Kansas after being missing for a year, he must come to terms with what transpired and face the aftermath with his family, church, and community, and, most importantly, with himself. The latest collaboration from John Kander (music and story) and Greg Pierce (book, lyrics, and story), Kid Victory tells a dark tale that could have been ripped from today’s headlines, in a harrowing coming-of-age musical that is difficult to watch, but too relevant not to.

The cast of Kid Victory. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The non-sequential narrative delves into the devastated psyche of a victimized outsider, who, after his ordeal, is “a different person now” and can no longer fit the mold of his Bible-Belt upbringing. Director Liesl Tommy seamlessly interweaves present-time scenes of Luke’s emotional struggle and social interactions with split-second transitions into surreal sequences in his mind and hallucinatory recollections of the past. Strangely upbeat segments of song and dance, choreographed with sardonic exuberance by Christopher Windom, contrast with Luke’s tortured state, as he deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Stockholm syndrome, issues of personal identity, and the ever-present dangers of unmonitored access to the internet.

Daniel Jenkins and Brandon Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Brandon Flynn is palpably anguished as Luke—who uses the eponymous screen name “Kid Victory” when playing online games—as he nervously works his fingers and hands, avoids eye contact, turns inward, then outwardly explodes at those who are trying, ineffectually, to help him. We can read the pain and confusion in his body language, see it in his facial expressions, and hear it in his voice; he’s the only one not singing.

Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba as Luke’s mother Eileen captures the woman’s always cheerful attitude, pleasant social demeanor, deep devotion to her religion, and incessant need to be in control of her household. Although she is unable to understand her son’s trauma and incapable of letting him work it out on his own, she never seems unlikeable, just at a loss for how to give him the support and acknowledgment that he so desperately needs (enlisting the aid of Gail, an overly enthusiastic amateur therapist from the church Fellowship, played with clueless gusto by Ann Arvia, isn’t the way). Ziemba sings Eileen’s heartfelt feelings in “A Single Tear” (regaling in her faith) and the poignant ballad “There Was a Boy” (lamenting the loss of the joyful child she raised, whose blue eyes have “gone distinctly gray”)—an expressive highlight of the show.

Brandon Flynn and Karen Ziemba. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dee Roscioli’s Emily, a nonconformist among the town’s church-going population, gives Luke a job in her failing garden shop, providing a kindred spirit and brief respite for the deeply troubled youth. Roscioli fully inhabits the free-spirited character, estranged from her own daughter for being “a bad mother,” but more empathetic towards her new-found friend ‘Lukester’ – as conveyed in her outsider anthem “People Like Us.” But it is Luke’s father Joseph, played with subtlety by Daniel Jenkins, who, despite some unfortunate lapses in judgment, comprehends the Kid’s need for space and privacy, is there for him on his journey into adulthood, and learns the importance of asking about “Where We Are” to keep the lines of communication open, to show that he truly cares, and to bring new light into a time of darkness.

Brandon Flynn and Jeffry Denman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Rounding out the fine supporting cast are Jeffry Denman as Michael, a former history teacher and boating enthusiast who transitions back and forth from smart and loving to violent and abusive in an instant; Blake Zolfo as Luke’s handsome fun-loving internet acquaintance Andrew, who performs a rousing light-hearted tap dance to “What’s the Point?” (“of living if your hand is always steady?”); Laura Darrell as Luke’s patient girlfriend Suze, who sweetly sings “I’d Rather Wait” than give up on him; and Joel Blum as Detective Marks, who continues to investigate the case of Luke’s disappearance. The ensemble also appears as members of the Fellowship chorus, who offer thanks for Luke’s return with the jubilant “Lord, Carry Me Home.”

An effective set design by Clint Ramos serves as Emily’s shop, the house of Luke’s family, and the site of his absence, all within the surrounding unfinished walls of a murky rundown basement. David Weiner’s lighting signals the switch from narrative reality into the psychedelic-hued imaginings of Luke’s haunted mind, and costumes by Jacob A. Climer visually define the characters’ personalities. Sound by Peter Hylenski is clear and balanced, and, at a heart-stopping moment in the show, heightens the protagonist’s drama with the ominous noise of approaching footsteps on the stairway to the cellar.

The smoothly polished Broadway style of the music, with rich orchestrations by Michael Starobin and music direction by Conductor and 1st Keyboardist Jesse Kissel, sometimes serves as an odd and much-needed break from the horrors the protagonist experiences when he feels that everyone around him is fine, sometimes as an entry point into his disturbed thoughts, and sometimes to express the sincere feelings of the characters. But often it creates a little too much disparity with the raw emotions and psychological intensity of the theme. Would Kid Victory work as well or better as a straight drama than a musical? Either way, the production at Vineyard Theatre tells a crucial must-see story, the likes of which happen too often.

 Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Kid Victory plays through Sunday, March 19, 2017, performing at Vineyard Theatre – 108 East 15th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 353-0303, or purchase them online.

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