Book and Lyrics by Greg Pierce, Music by John Kander
Story by John Kander and Greg Pierce
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I think so. I think he’s a good God, who can make bad plans. Thing’s going OK over at the shop?” – Joseph (Dad) to Luke
Unable to score a substantial victory with his parents, his girlfriend Suze (played with a doleful and deep sadness by Laura Darrell), or his conservative Baptist faith community, seventeen-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn) – as many teenage boys do – turns to the world of gaming to find a “safe” place to succeed without the judgment of peers or parents. He competes with fellow gamers worldwide in Regatta 500. “You can build your own boat and then you race. You can race with people from all over the world, and you can chat with them while you’re racing,” he explains to his employer Emily (Dee Roscioli). Luke’s racing name is Kid Victory, the name of the musical currently running at the Vineyard Theatre that exposes the complex relationship Luke has with his family and the online pedophile that shatters his teenage life.
Luke is taken from his home – rather he leaves willingly – and is unwittingly kept captive by his Regatta 500 competitor Michael’s (played with a sadistic yet deeply damaged psyche by Jeffry Denman) island for five months. During his captivity, Luke undergoes unspeakable degradation and abuse from his captor. He also receives affirmation and his captivity is full of ambiguity and a source of the rich and challenging moral ambiguity that clings to the underbelly of “Kid Victory.” Mr. Kander’s and Mr. Pierce’s story here is as dark – if not darker – than the Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” collaboration in the mid-1960s. That murky substratum is exacerbated when Luke returns home and attempts to readjust to life there where the moral ambiguity agglomerates exponentially.
After Luke’s return from captivity, his mother Eileen (Karen Ziemba) launches a full-bore campaign to re-assimilate her son into the semblance of civility she has struggled to maintain all her conservative Christian life. Eileen wants to enlist the help of members of the congregation to assist Luke in the process of “repatriation.” The scene with the church’s amateur therapist Gail (played with a sadistic “helpfulness” by Ann Arvia) trying to “repair” Luke with her marble game (“You Are the Marble”) is as horrific as seeing Luke in chains in Michael’s basement. Luke’s family fails to realize he is “a different person” because of his time with Michael and their efforts to provide a “transition” back to “normal” life are not helpful. Despite Luke’s father’s (Daniel Jenkins) attempts to neutralize his wife’s lack of understanding, she continues to push him away and misunderstand his needs.
Luke finds solace in his relationship with Emily but even that surcease is jettisoned after Luke helps Emily reunite with her estranged daughter Mara (Laura Darrell). And Luke almost finds unconditional love with Andrew (played with an authentic interest by Blake Zolfo) the gay young man Luke connects with online after returning home. In the tender ballad “What’s the Point,” Andrew asks, “What’s the point of living/If your hand is always steady?/If you always think you’re ready?/What’s the point?” But the flashbacks to his imprisonment are relentless as is his mother’s attempts to isolate him from healthy individuation. It seems every time Luke can wear his vine crown of victory with pride, someone or something lurks in the shadows waiting to sabotage his personal redemption.
At first glance, it might not be clear why “Kid Victory” needs to be a musical. After all, Luke’s story could be staged as a play: in fact, Luke is the only character who does not sing. On further reflection, it becomes clear that the musical numbers allow the story to unfold in its most surreal and nonconscious manner. Part “Greek chorus,” part “comedic relief,” and part “cartoon,” the well-crafted choreography by Christopher Windom and the intriguing book, lyrics, and music by John Kander and Greg Pierce counterpoint the heinous histories of Luke’s experiences in his home and his “home away from home” on his captor’s island. The cast is uneven vocally but succeed overall in delivering their musical numbers. With that said, the cast needs to maintain a tighter “control” over the audience. Allowing spaces for applause after musical numbers does not help the musical’s continuity.
Brandon Flynn delivers an emotionally charged performance as the psychologically embattled Luke. The young actor has grappled with this role and found its core of unrelenting sadness and pain. Karen Ziemba’s Eileen appropriately lacks any remorse for her complicity in Luke’s adolescent angst and depression. Daniel Jenkins captures the torment of being caught between a controlling wife and a son needing affirmation and unconditional love. Dee Roscioli’s freethinking Emily provides just enough hope in Luke’s quest for find a firm footing in his return “home.” And Joel Blum delivers a realistic Franklin and Detective Marks.
Not much more can be said about “Kid Victory” without compromising the audience’s need to see this important musical and experience its layered depth and intricate plot structure. What can be said is that the final scene between Luke and his father Joseph (Daniel Jenkins) provides a powerful catharsis with the musical number “Where We Are.” The chemistry between Mr. Flynn and Mr. Jenkins is exceptional and deeply authentic.
Clint Ramos’ set provides the three locations of the action of “Kid Victory:” the dining room of the Browst household, the cell where Luke was imprisoned on Michael’s island, and Emily’s lawn store “Wicker Witch of the West.” Mr. Ramos creates a space where gloom trumps hope and sadness eclipses jubilance. Jacob A. Climer’s costumes and David Weiner’s delicate and moody lighting further delineate the limits of Luke’s inner world. Liesl Tommy’s intricate and compassionate direction put Mr. Flynn’s Luke at the center of this story and assure that his cast works as hard as he does to make “Kid Victory” the important piece of theatre it is.