Thursday, February 23, 2017

139. Review: KID VICTORY (seen February 21, 2017)

“Life’s Not a Cabaret, Old Chum”

Do the allegedly pedophilic leanings of Breitbart News honcho Milo Yiannapolous, circulating in the current news cycle, make your skin crawl? If so, you may find similarly disturbing the subject matter of Kid Victory, the fitfully effective, coming-of-age musical at the Vineyard Theatre. The work of 89-year-old John Kander, composer of the iconic Broadway musicals Cabaret and Chicago, and Greg Pierce—the much younger book writer-lyricist Kander has been working with since the death of his previous partner, Fred Ebb—it dives into the dark waters of a teenager’s sexual enslavement; the results, though, may not be as deep as the subject warrants. (See Room and Don’t Breathe for recent filmic treatments of this subject.)
Originally produced in 2015 by the Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA, the smoothly-performed, intermissionless, two-hour show takes place in a small, Bible-belt, Kansas town, where the shy, withdrawn, 17-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn, sensitive but overdoing the jitters) lives with his earnestly pious, unquestioningly loving parents. Joseph (Daniel Jenkins, solid) is, until the end, emotionally stifled and reticent; Eileen (the always terrific Karen Ziemba) is a this-side-of-smothering micromanager. Still, for all their idiosyncrasies, they’re really not that much different from what we think of as the average American mom and pop, the kind you see on so many TV sitcoms. Dad struggles to be understanding and mom can't handle minor deviations from her scheme of things.
Brandon Flynn, Karen Ziemba. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aided by the significant contribution of David Weiner’s superb lighting, Luke’s story is told by artfully moving back and forth between his current life and the previous year. It's gradually revealed that the boat-loving boy was the kidnapped captive of a similarly boat-obsessed older man, a high school teacher named Michael (Jeffry Denman, suitably creepy); the pair met via an online boat-racing game, in which “Kid Victory” was Luke’s (obviously ironic) screen name. Once under Michael’s control, Luke came to see him as a surrogate dad; he later reveals an episode that, while unexplored in the show, brings Stockholm syndrome to mind.
Blake Zolfo, Laura Darrell, Daniel Jenkins, Karen Ziemba, Ann Arvia, Joel Blum. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set designer Clint Ramos, needing to suggest multiple locales, offers an unfinished basement in which we imagine scenes set, for example, in the family kitchen, Luke’s bedroom (represented by a small mattress), the place where Luke was chained, and the lawn shop where Luke works.
Brandon Flynn, Dee Roscioli. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In these and other places we watch Luke’s difficulties in relating to his family and friends in the wake of his experience as the older man’s captive (when Luke, presumably, was 16), an experience that has radically changed him. After all, songs like Michael’s “Vinland,” with its lyric “There is always pain before paradise,” are not the most edifying. Luke’s changes, it would seem, also confirmed his uncertain sexual inclinations, as revealed in his disinterest in his sweet, former girlfriend, Suze (Laura Darrell), and his attraction to a gay boy named Andrew (Blake Zolfo) whose shared interest in arson carries a red herring fragrance.
Brandon Flynn, Jeffry Denman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Luke, seeking to keep occupied, takes a job with Emily (Dee Roscioli, warmly engaging), an earthy, tattooed, hippie type, at her eccentric, struggling lawn store. He finds in her the maternal warmth and understanding his own uptight mother can’t provide; ironically, Emily, for her part, is having her own relationship problems with her estranged, teenage daughter, Mara (Darrell). While a lot in the narrative seems forced and irrelevant, the Luke-Emily relationship is particularly difficult to swallow. Mara’s involvement seems more padding than necessity.
Brandon Flynn, Laura Darrell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tying the threads together is a chorus representing Eileen’s religious compeers, each of whom also plays one or more supporting roles, but also available for service as, let’s say, a band of Viking warriors during one of Michael's forced "lessons." Suze and Mara are among these supplementary characters, as are Gail (Ann Arvia, appealing), who practices her quirky brand of amateur psychotherapy on Luke, and the suspicious Detective Marks (Joel Blum, on the mark), charged with investigating Luke’s case.
Daniel Jenkins, Laura Darrell, Karen Ziemba, Dee Roscioli, Blake Zolfo, Ann Arvis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Despite its imaginative staging by the highly talented Liesl Tommy, with a limited number of nicely choreographed sequences created by Christopher Windom, the piece never fully coheres. It veers from being predominantly musical, with the dialogue in recitative mode, to long passages, especially one toward the end, without any music at all. And, quite oddly, the only non-singing role is Luke.

Much of the score, orchestrated for 10 offstage musicians by Michael Starobin, has that lush, melodic sound you expect from a top notch Broadway composer like Kander, even when the tunes aren’t up to his best. Several, however, do come through to delightful effect. In particular, “What’s the Point,” in which the entire company does a bit of tap dancing to a song asking the purpose of a risk-free life, engages eyes and ears in an old-fashioned show biz kind of way. You can appreciate it as sheer entertainment even if it seems rather disengaged from the mood and subject matter of everything around it.

With musicals increasingly dealing with the nastier aspects of existence it’s a tossup as to how audiences will respond to Kid Victory’s subject matter. Most likely, they’ll appreciate the production while managing their unease regarding how effectively that subject matter is handled. A partial victory, of course, is better than none at all.


Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC

Through March 19

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