- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2015

Having a child go missing is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the anguish in the child’s return home has received scant, if any, thought in the artistic world — at least not until “Kid Victory” opened at the Signature Theater in Arlington Feb. 17.

The latest musical from prolific “Cabaret” composer John Kander and lyricist Greg Pierce — who also collaborated on the off-Broadway show “The Landing” — presents a challenge to the performers and the audience to go along on a pain-filled, albeit frequently humorous, journey with young protagonist Luke.

Portrayed by Jake Winn, Luke is a typical teen forever changed and tormented by his experience of having gone “missing” for a year. (The how and the why of his absence become gradually clear through the exposition.) It’s a tall order for any actor, particularly one of such youth, but Mr. Winn, a veteran of several New York productions, brings unusual depth and complexity to Luke — which is appropriate, given the worldliness thrust upon Luke during his time away from his Kansas family.

While Luke’s torment is seen in excruciating flashback, the scenes of his readjustment to domesticity are as equally unbearable. His mother, played by Christiane Noll, is controlling and far from understanding Luke’s ordeal and feelings. His father, portrayed by Christopher Bloch, is warm and genteel but ineffectual in breaking through Luke’s self-imposed seclusion.

Then there are the church folk, such as Gail (Donna Migliaccio), who seem to think that all Luke needs to mend fences with his past is some old-time religion and song.

This is dark material, made no less traumatic by the fact that this is, after all, a musical. The songs by Mr. Kander and Mr. Pierce vacillate between the morbid and the light of foot. The excellent Jeffry Denman is harrowing as Michael, who transmits some unspeakable dialogue and plot that could be related only through song, given the magnitude of their horror. His “bad education” of Luke is made even more frightful by his slick, pedantic nature.

There are light, upbeat numbers, such as the late-show entry “Matchstick Men,” featuring the effervescent Parker Drown, as Andrew, turning an awkward midnight meeting with Luke in the cornfields into a song-and-dance number that features a tap routine. Mr. Drown appears lighter than air in the number, all smiles and positivity, providing marked contrast to the rapidly increasing spiral swallowing Luke’s soul.

Special note must be made of Sarah Litzsinger as Emily, the hippy-dippy owner of a garden accessory store who employs Luke as a helper in her shop. The relationship between Emily, who is not quite middle-aged, and Luke is meant to be ambiguous, riding a fine line of matronly worry — of which Luke’s mother is incapable — while bordering on the sexual. Miss Litzsinger’s voice is by far the strongest of the cast, and her ease of character and virility of tone bring zest to the songs “Lawn” and, especially, “The Last He Needed,” a cheery ditty that makes one smile despite the melancholy of the lyrics.

Liesl Tommy’s direction takes full advantage of the Signature’s expansive stage, allowing her to block multiple scenes simultaneously, often in inspired counterpoint. This has the effect of giving the audience a choice of where to direct attention and seeks active participation: By asking for frequent shifts of focus and perspective, Ms. Tommy all but requires the audience to take part and view the shorn humanity of Luke, his family and his friends up close.

Yet for such involvement, the story and the production are strangely lacking in empathy between material and audience. Much like Luke’s relationships after his disappearance, it is almost as if the show’s creators and Ms. Tommy wish us to embrace Luke while keeping us at arm’s length — as if getting too close a look at the horror would show us the strings holding up some of the musical’s far-fetched plot aspects.

Ironically, the estrangement between audience and production, while perhaps the point of the show, doesn’t translate well enough into the alienation of Luke onstage. Mr. Winn strives admirably to make Luke real and habitable, but the production surrounding him is often sadly lacking in the humanity that we are meant to believe could — and possibly will — be his ultimate salvation. It almost feels that Ms. Tommy doesn’t trust her audience enough to handle Luke’s burden with him, thus keeping the viewer away from perdition’s flames lest we, too, be scorched.

Despite the often heavy disquiet between performers and audience (to say nothing of some by-the-numbers plot points), “Kid Victory” is ultimately less about its story than the raw emotions it conjures, not the least of which are regret, anger, disunity and confusion, related in a tight 120 minutes without intermission.

The show’s final number, “Where We Are,” sung by Mr. Bloch to Mr. Winn in Luke’s childhood bedroom, certainly does not bring all to close, but it does provide as much of an emotional resolution — one might even tentatively say redemption — as is possible in the world of “Kid Victory.”

If You Go

WHAT: “Kid Victory”

WHERE: The Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Virginia

WHEN: Through March 22

INFO: Tickets $36.80 to $91.15. Call 703/820-9771 or visit Signature-Theatre.org.

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