Kid Victory review – John Kander's melodies haunt dark abuse musical

Vineyard Theater, New York
The Broadway legend’s lovely music-box refrains and mournful orchestrations give emotional weight to the melancholy story of a teenager who was kept chained in a basement for a year

What good is it sitting alone in your room when instead you could be lured out for a boat ride with an online predator who will drug you, rape you, and chain you in a basement? Actually, maybe sitting alone in your room isn’t so bad.

In Kid Victory, an unlikely new musical by legendary composer John Kander and playwright Greg Pierce at the Vineyard theatre, teenaged Luke (Brandon Flynn) has returned to his Kansas home after being held captive for nearly a year. Unsurprisingly, he has some difficulty reassimilating to small-town life with his fundamentalist Christian parents (Karen Ziemba, Daniel Jenkins).

He finds some succour working at a garden shop with the town outcast, Emily (Dee Roscioli), and less comfort in flashbacks to his basement days with Michael (Jeffry Denman, splendid in a demanding role), a former history teacher, occasional sailor and full-time psychopath.

Michael and Luke met online, playing a game called Regatta 500, in which Luke adopted the alias Kid Victory. After some subtle grooming, Michael tempted Luke with a promise to show him his dinghy.

This is Kander’s second musical with Pierce, a partnership formed after the death of the lyricist Fred Ebb in 2004. Their first, The Landing, was a collection of three one-act musicals about decease and desire with a whiff of the supernatural. In contrast to the famous Kander and Ebb shows (Chicago, Cabaret), both The Landing and Kid Victory are chamber musicals – the cast relatively small, the music subdued, the focus trained on children and adolescents, just as in Pierce’s non-musical plays. But there’s an insinuating moral murk you can trace across much of Kander’s career.

The Landing, with its several deaths, was a pretty dark show. Kid Victory is darker. And while more realistic (no singing angels of death here, no rhymes like goonacy/lunacy), it is not exactly plausible.

That Michael and Luke should have developed a relationship more complicated than victimiser and victim is somewhat credible. That Luke and his friends and neighbours should struggle with his reintegration is assumed. But little about the show’s psychology, from the attitudes of the folks back home in the first scene to the tied-with-a-bow closure of the last, feels likely or lived in – which makes it difficult to access the work emotionally, despite some simple, lovely melodies from Kander and their mournful, reed-heavy orchestrations. (Luke never sings, which makes a lot of sense in the contemporary scenes and a lot less in the flashbacks.)

As in The Landing, there is a childlike quality to several of the songs, which sound like lullabies, music box tinkles or fairground calliopes. There is also a classic love ballad, sung to Luke by his kidnapper.

The director, Liesl Tommy, and the scenic designer, Clint Ramos, make one terrific choice, setting the whole of the show in Michael’s basement, suggesting that Luke’s escape is incomplete. But Tommy encourages most of the actors to exaggerate their assigned traits – Flynn’s twitchy Luke; Ziemba’s self-righteous mother – which only emphasises the doubtfulness of the book. With its music and its melancholy and its refusal to perk itself up for the tourist trade, there’s a lot to admire in Kid Victory. That doesn’t make it seaworthy.


Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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