Joan Marcus
‘Do we expect the show to transmit the message that crime doesn’t pay?’Joan Marcus
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Everybody Loves Bank Fraud

A hit new musical teaches the loathsome lesson that white-collar crime is all fun and games

by
Morton Landowne
January 20, 2023
Joan Marcus
‘Do we expect the show to transmit the message that crime doesn’t pay?’Joan Marcus

I love musicals, especially musical comedies, and tend to get enthusiastic about ones that blow me away, recommending them to anyone who will listen. Hamilton needed no help from me, nor did The Producers or The Book of Mormon, but ask anyone who knows me how hard I pushed them to see Bullets Over Broadway, Something Rotten, or any show featuring Jackie Hoffman!

I’m similarly enthused about the new musical Some Like It Hot, based on the beloved film of the same name. I did not expect to enjoy seeing such a classic movie “reimagined,” and wondered how the writers could successfully present a buddy comedy about two guys who go into hiding, in drag, in 2023. I was wrong. But after I recommended it, and said that it was the best new musical I’d seen in years and that I couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t win the Tony for best musical, I was told that it wouldn’t stand a chance against another new show, Kimberly Akimbo, a comedy about a 17-year-old girl with a fatal aging disorder. Sure enough, as I read its reviews, doubt crept in.

Here’s a small selection:

The New York Times: “The season’s most moving new musical ... profoundly funny and heartbreaking.”

The Hollywood Reporter: “Meet your new favorite musical.”

New York Stage Review: “The sweet musical treat we need right now.”

The Wall Street Journal: “The best musical of the year so far, by far.”

Entertainment Weekly: “leaves you floating high on good vibes.”

Variety: “An oddball musical that’s impossible not to love.”

So, I decided I needed to see for myself. Not only did I not find Kimberly Akimbo “impossible not to love,” I found it, frankly, loathsome.

I state that opinion without taking anything away from the wonderful star, 63-year-old Victoria Clarke, who portrays Kimberly, a teenager with a disease that causes her to resemble, well, a woman as old as Clarke. I found the show—written by David Lindsay-Abraire and with music by Jeanine Tesori—drab, pedestrian, banal, cliched, and unnecessarily foul-mouthed. And that was just the first act. I toyed with departing at intermission, but remained, motivated by the thought that there must be something in the second act to justify the unanimous critical accolades. (As you can tell from the list above, I truly searched—in vain—for someone who agreed with me.)

But here’s where the show truly lost me: when the curtain rose on the second act, in Kimberly’s basement. Her admittedly evil Aunt Debra (played by Bonnie Milligan and praised by one critic as “the musical’s raging comedic force”), just out of jail for an unspecified crime, has stolen a full-size USPS mailbox and somehow gotten it into the cellar of the family’s house, along with a large copier machine. Why has she stolen a blue mailbox? What’s with the copier? Well, that’s explained in the first set piece.

The rousing song that opens a second act is usually one of the best numbers in a show (think “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in Evita or “Masquerade” in The Phantom of the Opera). Here, that song is titled, I kid you not, “How to Wash a Check.” It depicts, in exact detail, how to fish envelopes out of a mailbox, use solvent to erase the payee’s name on any checks in the harvested envelopes, and then Xerox it to create a bogus but realistic check made payable to the criminal. (Perhaps I’m a bit biased because I’ve wasted dozens of hours of my life on the phone, in banks, and in police stations dealing with the aftermath of this crime, one that’s estimated to have defrauded banks and their customers of close to a billion dollars in the U.S. last year.)

Anyway, this “lesson,” staged as laughable hijinks, is central to the show’s plot and its denouement. The criminal skill must be mastered in order to defraud a few local banks—with Clarke posing as a kindly old grandmother who cashes the fake checks—in order to get the funds for her and her friends’ wish fulfillment: glittery costumes for a musical competition, and a make-a-wish-type road trip to Disneyworld. (Even this is akimbo, since earlier in the play Kimberly qualifies for the actual Make-A-Wish-Foundation’s dream fulfillment and requests ... a treehouse.)

Do we expect the show to transmit the message that crime doesn’t pay? That people should be punished for committing a federal crime? Not in this fantasia. The show ends with the money successfully stolen, the friends vamping in Chorus Line-quality spangly outfits, and Kimmy, as the curtain falls, in a dreamy video, enjoying the rides at Disneyworld. The woman seated next to me had tears running down her face, and not because she was expecting the entire cast to be facing jail time for bank fraud.

Am I living in an alternate universe? As I read the unanimous praise for this show—with scarcely a mention of “How to Wash a Check,” the centrality of theft to the plot, or the fact that the lead character’s disability was used as a gimmick to jerk tears—I thought, “perhaps I am.” I would love to discuss the merits of this production with anyone who has seen it, and urge anyone who hasn’t, not to bother.

Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.

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