BWW Reviews: KID VICTORY Haunts at Signature Theatre

Let's just get right to it. There's a lot to like about the much anticipated world premiere of John Kander and Greg Pierce's Kid Victory at Signature Theatre. Four things, in particular, stand out about this haunting and quite mesmerizing musical. First, their story is completely original - a rarity nowadays - and it is an interesting and thought-provoking one at that. Second, at least in terms of overall concept and form, the creative team takes risks not often associated with many contemporary musicals - or at least the ones packaged for a commercial Broadway run - both in terms of the subject matter and flexible use of time and how to get from Point A to Point B. Third, there's new music by John Kander (need I say more) and it's as gloriously melodic, catchy, and fresh as ever. Fourth, this production offers a strong cast that's more than capable of tackling the challenging material. This is not to say that everything works. Simply put, it doesn't. However, for the first time out, it's abundantly clear the musical, directed by Liesl Tommy, has a lot of promise and has the potential to strike a chord with the more discerning theatergoing public.

In lesser hands, Kid Victory could have been something of a melodramatic Lifetime TV movie about child abduction put onstage. However, as written by John Kander - who, in partnership with the late Fred Ebb, was no stranger to writing challenging musicals (Cabaret, The Scottsboro Boys, and The Visit anyone?) - and Greg Pierce (best known for the also challenging and angst-ridden play Slowgirl), it's most definitely not that. Greg Pierce's book, based on the story he created with John Kander, is not one of those paint-by-number-types of dime-a-dozen family dramas where everything is tied up neat and tidy after an hour or two and all issues are solved.

When we meet teenaged sailboat aficionado Luke (New York-based newcomer Jake Winn, who proves capable of giving a raw and real performance), he has just returned home after a year - we later learn - of being held captive by maritime history expert Michael (the fine-voiced and appropriately creepy Jeffry Denman) a man he met online while playing a sailboat game. His Mom (Tony nominee Christiane Noll) and Dad (Christopher Bloch) are grateful to have him back home safe and sound, but are at a loss, it seems, on how to best connect with their forever-changed son. His well-meaning churchgoing mom, well-played by Noll in a multilayered and exquisitely well sung performance, turns to God and her friends from church to try to get Luke back to normal. Whether throwing parties, spouting off Bible verses from Corinthians, or having fellow churchgoer Gail (Washington, DC musical theatre regular Donna Migliaccio, showing her knack for comedy) counsel her son, she's determined to make things better for the family without really addressing fundamental issues. Initially, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the more reserved Dad - at least from Luke's perspective - remains distanced and detached from his hurting son.

In lieu of returning to high school, Luke seeks employment and friendship from a woman that did not know him pre-trauma as a means of escape from his personal and family pain and a way to further discover who he is in the present. Emily (Broadway's powerhouse vocalist Sarah Litzsinger, making a strong impression in her Signature Theatre debut) runs a lawn and garden shop in their small Kansas town. She knows what happened to Luke - his picture was everywhere for a year, after all - and is ready to lend an ear to him and let him use his artistic and creative talents to better develop the business. Because Luke did not know her pre-disappearance and because she's more than a little different from your average person in his small town (highlighted in part by Kathleen Geldard's costumes), he feels more comfortable expressing himself to her to some extent, and his desire to simply get away.

A series of intense flashbacks, sparked by conversations that Luke has with Emily in particular, provide more details on Luke's year with Michael, including how it began and how it ended. By the end of the show, bits and pieces of information are still missing about Luke's time away from his family, what compelled him to strike an online friendship with Michael under the name "Kid Victory," and how he's adjusting post-reunification with his family and friends. He begins to open up, but not completely. The lingering question is where does he go from there and how can he come to terms with the past, but still move on?

Greg Pierce's book is strongest when he specifically delves into how Luke is adjusting and coming to terms with what happened to him, who he was previously, and who he is now post-trauma. A series of sub-plots involving the people Luke meets and reunites with following his return home likely were intended to to illustrate the challenges he faces in building relationships and trust in others after his time in captivity. However, ultimately their inclusion leads to a story that's not as focused as it could be.

Certainly, the story of single mother Emily's relationship with her daughter Mara (Laura Darrell in one of three roles) factors into Emily's budding mother-like relationship with Luke, which is in and of itself important, but far too much time is spent on that dynamic in terms of the eventual payoff. Likewise, the introduction of Andrew (Parker Drown), a young man Luke also met online, serves to highlight Luke's current trust issues. Yet, in the end the scene only gives us an excuse for Parker Drown to show off his impressive dance skills (choreography by Christopher Windom) and to insert a catchy musical number or two ("Matchstick Men" and "What's the Point?"). The scene goes nowhere and only confuses. The side plots that do likely have even more relevance to Luke coming to terms with his ordeal - for example, a detective (Bobby Smith) wanting to talk to him about what happened, or his girlfriend Suze (Laura Darrell) coming to talk to Luke at the garden shop - are given about a millisecond of attention each and then are dropped. Pierce must eventually decide which of these provide the greatest contribution to the overall story that he and Kander want to tell and decide how best to incorporate them into the proceedings.

While occasionally Pierce's lyrics leave something to be desired (let's just say I want to forget the repetitive and rather sophomoric lyrics to "You are the Marble" as well as how it is staged), the music that Kander has written for this production is every bit as marvelous as what he's done in the past. The varied numbers are all strong, encompassing everything from emotional ballads like "A Single Tear" (tenderly sung by Noll and the Ensemble), zany fast-paced character songs for Emily like "Lawn," to ones that infuse gospel elements like "Lord, Carry Me Home," or your standard musical theatre, soaring power ballad ("People Like Us" - not to be confused with the song Alan Menken wrote for Leap of Faith) that builds and builds. While not all of the songs necessarily musicalize the right moment ("You Are the Marble" and "What's the Point?" most prominently), they are well-written from a composition perspective and Michael Starobin's orchestrations - well-played by Jesse Kissel's 10-piece orchestra - make them even more memorable. They are also all very well sung.

While the musical numbers aren't necessarily key to advancing the book or illuminating who are characters are, I do appreciate that they allow the characters that are able and willing, to express themselves in a freeing way, including when emotions run high. It's an interesting decision to not have Luke sing at any moment in the show in this regard. On the topic of music, I must add that while the use of a Greek Chorus in several numbers to provide commentary on what's happening or the ideas others are expressing is an interesting idea (although certainly not new), I do wonder whether employing that device is all that useful in this case. I will say, however, that the voices in the Chorus are quite lovely.

Production-wise, I will also say that the sound (Lane Elms) design is more crystal clear and natural than most musicals I've seen at Signature in recent years. It's a nice change. Strong lighting design (David Weiner) establishes mood quite well, including in the darker flashback scenes involving Luke and Michael. Clint Ramos' scenic design fills the expansive, wide stage in Signature's Max Theatre. I did question the decision by the creative team to go so literal in establishing locations for the action. Luke's house, his bedroom/room where he was held captive, and the garden shop, all appear on the stage side-by-side. Occasional glitches involving moving the rotating set piece that's used for Luke's bedroom and the place where Michael held him captive at the right time didn't mar my appreciation for the production, but did make me wonder whether the extra technical element was necessary.

Overall, it will be exciting to see where this show goes from here. As Kid Victory is billed as a co-production with The Vineyard Theatre, it's reasonable to think that a New York production is entirely likely. If the show is to have a future, I have every confidence that some of the challenges witnessed at Signature will be addressed. I do think there's an audience for this kind of show and, taken on its own, it is a worthy addition to the American musical theatre scene.

Kudos to Signature Theatre, as always, for taking a chance on the unknown and including a world premiere musical in its season - especially one that's undoubtedly not the kind that will make all audience members comfortable. This season offers several premieres, but it's particularly encouraging that this one is wholly original and features a mix of tried and true musical theatre talent and some new faces.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

"Kid Victory" runs through March 22, 2015 at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at 703-820-9771 or purchase them online via Ticketmaster.

Pictured: Jake Winn and Christiane Noll (Photo by Margot Schulman).


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From This Author Jennifer Perry