Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce
At the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street
BS Rating: B+
Show-Score Rating: 85
This is a powerful play and, at times, it’s also a powerful musical play. If you who had the misfortune to see the first collaboration by the Broadway legend, John Kander, and his new (much younger) collaborator, Greg Pierce, you should give these new partners another chance. This is a much more substantive work than “The Landing,” also produced at the Vineyard Theatre. You also need to be warned that this is a disturbing and decidedly “adults only” piece that may not be to everyone’s taste for entertainment.
I use the term “musical play” very intentionally because this is not the type of show that you leave singing the songs, although there are some very effective musical moments. The “kid” in the title is a troubled teenager named Luke who has been kidnapped, seduced, and held captive by a disturbed middle-aged former history teacher. The play portrays the boy’s struggles in dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the failure of his family to recognize that he needs help beyond their middle-America assurance that his well-being is in the hands of God. At one point, Luke asks his father, “Do you believe in God?” His dad tries to defend his belief in a God that would allow his son to experience such awfulness, replying, “He’s a good God that can make bad plans.” The only comfort Luke receives from family and friends is their assurance that they continue “to pray for him” and wait to see the boy they once knew.
Pierce’s well-crafted book shows the boy’s need to be accepted as someone different – no one can go through what he experienced and come out of it the same person. His inability to communicate with his Christianity-possessed mother and his passive father drives him to cultivate a relationship with a confidante and surrogate mother in a person who is a sort of 2017 flower child. She employs him in her struggling gardening store and they openly share their deepest secrets and personal troubles. Pierce uses brief flashbacks to show the horrors and, strangely, the attractions of his relationship with his abductor. As the story progresses, we come to learn Luke’s back story – a narrative that shows the challenges he faces in recovery, in discovering himself as a different person, and the fact that he might not have been exactly the same person everyone thought he was before this traumatic event.
The show has the type of music that made Kander a legend. However, the lyrics, by both Kander and Pierce, frequently lack the bite that made his late-partner, Fred Ebb, so revered. There are several numbers that use the musical convention of the song as a commentary on its content – the specialty of the former team. For example, the boy’s effort to elicit empathy for his evolving identity from his family and friends is turned into a tap dance as he rejects being trapped in their view of his former self — “What’s the Point?.” But most of Kander’s music is sabotaged by mundane and less than revelatory lyrics. There is also space for added development of the story by Pierce. Luke’s relationship with his father deserves more attention and the questions of the investigating police officer about the nature of the relationship between the captor and captive might add to the dimension of the boy’s personal struggles.
Brandon Flynn gives a perfect performance as Luke. This newcomer can shift mood and attitude as quickly and effectively as required in a story that goes freely back and forth in time. Even if the characters in the play fail to have empathy for him, we certainly do. Daniel Jenkins does an effective job portraying the underdeveloped father. Some will find Karen Ziemba’s portrayal of the bible-thumping momma overdone; but in this time when so many believe religious doctrine is an essential part of “making America great again,” she is disturbingly believable. The weak link in the cast is Jeffry Denman as the predator. Denman is faced with communicating lechery, brutality, and warmth with little room for character development in the boy’s flashbacks. That takes an actor capable of projecting an aura, and while Denman is a very competent actor, we never feel that unnerving quality that masters of the perverse like Anthony Hopkins evoke so naturally.
John Kander has a long history of tackling stories that do not fit the usual mold for a musical – last year’s unfortunate commercial failure of “The Visit” after an extended period of development is the most recent example. That adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly satirical masterpiece still had the benefit of Fred Ebb’s talents. At a point in life where many artists rest on their laurels, Kander has found a talented and willing collaborator in Greg Pierce. Now they both need to find an equally talented lyricist. In the meantime, this is a thoughtful and moving production that is worth the visit, if intense musical drama appeals to you.