By Bob Shuman
Kid Victory, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre through March 19, is an Ordinary People without a shrink—or, to put it in a theatrical context, the musical is an Oklahoma! without a Curly. It’s a dark hometown show set in modern Kansas—which draws on cases like Elizabeth Smart’s and Natascha Kampusch’s kidnappings and captivities. Maybe William Inge or Lanford Wilson could have made sense of such sources dramatically, but the ending of John Kander’s and Greg Pierce’s work, directed frustratingly by Liesl Tommy, sits unsatisfactorily with a father (Daniel Jenkins) who accepts his son’s sexuality and who is also complicit in the year-long absence of the young man. That Kid Victory, the story of sex abuse and pedophilia, premiered while the Milo Yiannopoulos Breitbart resignation and book cancellation stories were breaking, shows how timely and shocking the material is—and how far away the execution of the musical is from an in-depth dramatic examination of the subject. Kander, of course, set a musical in Nazi Germany and in Chicago’s penal system, one ablaze with syncopated “merry murderesses.” But now, with a missing, balancing character and an inability to heighten the material, he’s writing workmanlike numbers, which are really too small for him. Artists may want to revisit their roots—and might even feel that they that have to (Kander is from Missouri)–but they could end up gagged, as if they are living the lives they would have lived if they had never left.
As the young man who has been abducted, Brandon Flynn is shakingly sensitive and may remind of a kid James Dean. Audiences are not told why he has not been given immediate and lasting psychological help after release; he does get religious guidance, which only seems anachronistic. Karen Ziemba plays the chilly and daffy mother, who does not understand the depth of trauma imprisonment would entail—in fact, neither does the whole town, with characters such as the young girlfriend (Laura Darrell) and a church friend (Ann Arvia). Kander has been playing with musicalizing Americana at least as far back as The Act, where he turned a plain, pious Shaker-inspired “Turning” into an up-tempo boogie for Liza Minnelli. But Kid Victory doesn’t show us anything to sing about (in fact, Luke does not sing): The book doesn’t take us far enough into the tragedy, and it’s not light enough for standard musical comedy. Thankfully, there is a Liza-like role in Kid Victory—played by Dee Roscioli, as a kooky garden-store owner. She helps leaven the woes one feels that the show is up against: Roscioli even sings a good Liza-like number: “People Like Us.” That’s when we’re in heaven. A hookup of Luke’s is the talented dancer, Blake Zolfo, who tap dances like Tulsa in Gypsy.
But this is John Kander. The dangerous, controversial subject and themes need to be detonated. His trade book with Fred Ebb is called Colored Lights, not The Fluorescent Light, which is part of David Weiner’s design–the setting is by Clint Ramos. Hal Prince was the one who saw that Cabaret was reflecting ‘60s America; after the critics hadn’t understood it, others realized that Chicago is talking about trash, corrupt celebrity culture–before the country even recognized the phenomenon. Prince and Fosse would have, no doubt, seen the metaphor, the concept of Kid Victory. They probably wouldn’t have discussed it much in the way of an old-fashioned book musical, even if Kander is trying to write chamber work. Doubtless, they would have pushed the book’s Thornton Wilder elements out into the cold, sarcastic, frightening, and Brechtian—remember Fosse filmed his own heart attack as a musical number in All That Jazz. Whether they would have seen this as the hallucinations of a sexual prisoner, which reflects the current state of the nation, is up for debate. Or maybe they would have thought that all of America is going through Stockholm Syndrome, which is part of this musical book—but, doubtless, the subject matter would have been attacked, acidly, head on.
And there would have been a musical vamp: a riveting, mesmerizing, penetrating vamp.
BOOK AND LYRICS BY GREG PIERCE
MUSIC BY JOHN KANDER
STORY BY JOHN KANDER AND GREG PIERCE
CHOREOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER WINDOM
DIRECTED BY LIESL TOMMY
WITH ANN ARVIA, JOEL BLUM, LAURA DARRELL, JEFFRY DENMAN, BRANDON FLYNN, DANIEL JENKINS, DEE ROSCIOLI, KAREN ZIEMBA, BLAKE ZOLFO
Press: Shane Marshall Brown/Sam Rudy Media Relations
Visit The Vineyard Theatre: http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/kid-victory/
Photos: The New York Times; Bob Shuman.
© 2017 by Bob Shuman.