Bonnie Milligan, a beloved fixture of New York’s cabaret circuit for years, is finally getting a chance to establish herself as a full-on theatrical powerhouse by way of Broadway’s “Kimberly Akimbo,” this season’s most unconventional new musical.
Adapted by writer David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori from the 2001 play of the same name, “Kimberly Akimbo” follows a lonely 15-year-old named Kimberly Levaco (played by Victoria Clark) who has grown up with a premature aging condition similar to progeria, thus making her appear to be well into her 70s.
Faced with the reality that she’s not likely to live much beyond her 16th birthday, Kimberly is eager to check off the milestones of the teenage experience ― a first kiss, a Disney World road trip ― before it’s too late. Enter Kim’s Aunt Debra (Milligan), a street-smart grifter who, much like the Artful Dodger of “Oliver Twist,” recruits her niece into an illicit, moneymaking scheme that could help her and her classmates fulfill their dreams ― that is, if no one gets caught.
On paper, Aunt Debra is a criminal. As portrayed by Milligan, however, the scene-stealing character becomes the kind of brassy antihero Bette Midler might have played in her prime.
“I have a very big family and I know a lot of complicated people who have done some complicated things and who, in their minds, are doing their best,” Milligan told HuffPost. “So that’s how I approached Debra. She’s not maliciously trying to hurt people, but she will because she needs to survive. She didn’t have anybody looking out for her, so she looks out for herself, and that’s how she talks herself into not feeling bad about scamming people because, well, who looked out for her? Nobody. It’s just animal instinct taking over.”
She went on to note: “She’s also a charismatic person that you want to be around. When I read the play, I saw love. Kimberly is her favorite person in the world, because she’s the only person who frankly likes being around her and does more than tolerate her. She knows what’s happening in Kim’s life. To me, that says love.”
“Kimberly Akimbo” marks Milligan’s first Broadway outing since her impressive debut in the 2018 Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels,” which received positive reviews but struggled to find an audience. Before that, she honed her craft in off-Broadway shows like Ryan Scott Oliver and Hunter Foster’s “Jasper in Deadland,” as well as on the concert stage, where she’s affectionately known to fans as “Belting Bonnie.”
But Milligan’s road back to Broadway was marked with setbacks that could have discouraged a less tenacious artist. She was reeling from the premature closing of “Head Over Heels” when she first learned of “Kimberly Akimbo,” ahead of its premiere staging off-Broadway, in early 2020. At the time, an audition seemed out of the question, given that she’d returned to her native Ohio to tend to her father Bill, who had recently been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He died about five weeks after her arrival.
As she grieved the loss, Milligan was able to postpone her virtual tryout for “Kimberly Akimbo.” By the time she landed the part, however, theaters and other performance venues were shuttered indefinitely to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“I had to hope and pray that it would come back,” she recalled, “because something about this material felt like it was mine.”
One thing Aunt Debra in “Kimberly Akimbo” shares with Milligan’s characters in “Head Over Heels” and other shows is an unapologetic sense of self. It’s an attribute the actor and singer has deliberately sought to highlight in her performances, perhaps in reaction to the challenges she’s experienced as a plus-size woman in show business.
To that end, Milligan has seen a bit of a shift in recent years on Broadway, alluding to shows like “Hadestown” and “Some Like It Hot,” which have featured actors with plus-size bodies in principal roles.
“I’ve been able to be a fully formed artist, more than just somebody coming on for a quick fat or food joke, and completely bring myself in two shows,” she explained. “Body diversity isn’t something that we’ve always talked about, but I think [Broadway producers] are realizing the importance of audiences seeing themselves on the stage in a pleasant light as opposed to someone who is seen as unattractive. I do see a shift. I would love to see us shift more, of course, and maybe cast a plus-size person as a romantic lead. Let us be thriving, let us be attractive, let us be fully formed people because we are in the world.”
And if Milligan has her way, an onscreen romance could very well be in her future, along with other film, television and theater projects.
“I feel like I need to do at least one Hallmark Christmas movie in my life,” she quipped. “I look at some of my idols: Carol Burnett, Debra Monk, Donna Murphy. They’ve done everything, and they continue to live and work in all these different spaces.”
“Honestly, I’d love to keep my toe in everything,” she added. “But the hope is just to have a career. I don’t need to be famous, but I just love to work. That’s the dream.”
“Kimberly Akimbo” is now playing at New York’s Booth Theatre.