There is one song by John Kander in Kid Victory that recalls the composer’s collaboration with Fred Ebb in both Cabaret and Chicago – “What’s the Point?” a jaunty, satiric tap-dance. It’s one of the few such moments in Kander and Pierce’s somber, often harrowing musical, now Off-Broadway, about the aftermath of a kidnapping.
We first see 17-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn) in a startling, wordless scene, handcuffed to a wall in some kind of dungeon. The scene lasts only an instant, and then we are in the living room of Luke’s family home in a small town in Kansas, where his mother (Karen Ziemba) is making preparations for Luke’s Welcome Home party by their church fellowship – a party he doesn’t want. In response, she sings “A Single Tear,” about how she and those in her church prayed for him for a year: She prayed instead of crying, and was rewarded “when a single tear fell from the sky onto my wrist/A single tear, straight from his eye told me I’d been kissed/And I knew the sun would rise again.”
Luke’s response: “I’m just not ready, Mom.”
To his parents’ consternation, Luke also doesn’t feel ready to return to school. He takes a job with Emily (Dee Roscioli), the proprietor of a store selling birdhouses and lawn ornaments with the precious name Wicker Witch of the West. She is the town misfit – and the only person Luke feels he can talk to.
Kid Victory recalls Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen in its look at a troubled teenager, his family, and their recovery from trauma. It focuses more than its predecessors on the trauma itself, revealing it in intermittent flashbacks – how Luke met Michael (Jeffry Denman) through the chatroom of an online sailboat racing game (Kid Victory was Luke’s screen name.) After many hours of chatting over many months, they meet – and Michael drugs him.
As these disturbing scenes unfold, it eventually becomes clear that the relationship between Michael and Luke is more complex than simply kidnapper and captive. It is also, among other things, teacher and student (Michael was a history teacher; the song “Vinland,” a song about the Viking’s discovery of the New World, is one of his lessons.)
Is it the fruit of Michael’s worldview (Stockholm Syndrome?), or of Luke’s upbringing by deeply religious parents, that his strongest desires seem to come paired with guilt and pain? As Michael sings it: “To the west of pain is a paradise.” It is an intriguing, provocative suggestion that may make theatergoers squirm, but it also invests the musical with an unusual compassion and psychological insight.
Kid Victory is aided by a universally impressive nine-member cast that director Liesl Tommy has assembled for the production at the Vineyard – several of them holdovers from the 2015 production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington. Of special note are Jeffry Denman as Michael, who achieves the nearly impossible task of making a psychopath both credible and (almost) sympathetic, and Brandon Flynn as Luke, whose performance encourages us to identify with his suffering, and joy, and confusion.
Flynn never sings. This should be evidence enough that Kander, who turns 90 years old next month, entered a new phase in his work after Fred Ebb’s death in 2004. In Kid Victory, his second collaboration with playwright and lyricist Greg Pierce, a half century his junior, Kander employs his arsenal of blues and hymns, ballads and dirges to tell a story that might work without any music, but stays with you all the more because of it.
Kid Victory is on stage at the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15thStreet between Union Square East and Irving Place, New York, NY 20003) through March 19, 2017.