John Kander, who will soon be celebrating his 90th birthday, has now confirmed that his collaboration with 39 year-old playwright Greg Pierce, is on solid ground, and offers us great promise for more worthy work ahead.
Kid Victory is their current offering at the Vineyard Off Broadway and it’s a major achievement. Its story is by both of them; it’s a coming of age family tale that is set in a small town in Kansas near the Missouri border. It covers just a few weeks after the sudden return home of a teenager who’d been missing for almost a year and feared dead. His mother, father, friend, neighbor are plain folk– church goers, simple people with conventional values. Luke, the young man, returns to them seemingly unharmed, but as time passes reveals just how scarred he is emotionally by his ordeal of almost a year. Little by little, in a most fluid manner, we see what happened to him, and we watch as he tries to adjust to the expectations of those who do love him, but with whom he cannot share the details of his ordeal. Then he finds a compassionate soulmate in a woman who runs a curio shop; she becomes the one person in whom he can confide.
Constructed in one act that runs about 75 minutes, Kid Victory is a free-flowing play with music more than it is the kind of musical we’ve come to expect from John Kander during his 40 productive years writing with the late Fred Ebb. Greg Pierce, whose play Slowgirl introduced him to us as a playwright of considerable power, has once again constructed a musical book that is enriched by ten richly complex characters, and the musical material merely enriches those characterizations and gives them dimension and depth.
Under Liesl Tommy’s direction, the material drifts back and forth from the present to the past, sometimes simultaneously, and this is no mean achievement. With the help of a fluid set by Clint Ramos, and lighting by David Weiner, it’s easy enough to know exactly where we are and when the action is taking place.
The central character is played by a young discovery who follows in the very special league of Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) and Alex Sharp (The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time.) He is Brandon Flynn, a recent graduate of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.”Luke” is a complicated boy emerging into a conflicted young man who finds himself living in an environment totally foreign to his nature, and his inexperience leads him into waters far too deep for him to navigate. His performance is flawless and covers great range. He is very important to the success of this small but powerfully effective piece of stagecraft.
Karen Ziemba, a Kander alumnus, is totally convincing as the boy’s mother who truly loves him with all the power to love that she’s been given, even though it’s not enough.
His father is played quietly and movingly by Daniel Jenkins, and two of the young girls, one of whom fancies Luke, are played winningly by Laura Darrell.
Jeffry Denman, who was effectively different in Yank! and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, is quite brilliant as the man who figures so prominently in Luke’s months away from home. The rest of the small company bring specific qualities to the other characters; and, as this is a very strong and specific play, they are all essential to its success.
John Kander in an appearance on TV once said he was the luckiest writer alive to have found Greg Pierce to write with after a 40-year run with his much-missed partner Fred Ebb. The fact that he and Pierce both attended Oberlin College makes the fact that they did so about 50 years apart totally irrelevant. Pierce would appear to be old beyond his years, and Kander has always remained young at heart. Together they make beautiful music, and are already working on future projects. But for now, Kid Victory will do very nicely.