WHAT “Kid Victory”
WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.
INFO $85; 212-352-3101; vineyardtheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Dark, daring chamber musical by John Kander, 89 and still counting.
Leave it to John Kander, 89 and definitely still counting, to dare to write a musical that evokes ambiguous feelings about a pedophile kidnapper.
This is, after all, the composer who, along with his late collaborator Fred Ebb, created dark, bold entertainment about Nazi Germany (“Cabaret”) and women murderers (“Chicago”).
“Kid Victory” is a small, dark, tight chamber musical with thoughtful lyrics by Greg Pierce, the 39-year-old playwright who has been Kander’s recent creative partner. At the center is Luke, a teenage boy from Kansas who gets lured into a nightmare adventure via a video game about sailboat races, Luke’s passion.
We enter the story as he returns to his pious Christian family after almost a year. Luke, played with sober, riveting charisma by newcomer Brandon Flynn, is the rare main character of a musical who doesn’t sing. When he speaks, it is with disaffection and confusion. Flashbacks to his ordeal — and a pair of hanging shackles on a wall near a center mattress — answer almost all the questions we might have about his inability to settle back into his old life. The plot, which has the specific intimacy of a short story, eventually fills in the rest.
There is a resonance with “Dear Evan Hansen,” another musical about a troubled teen and the internet. In some ways, one may be also reminded of “How I Learned to Drive,” Paula Vogel’s subtle tragicomedy, also produced at this theater, that blurred perilous lines between exploitation and consensual emotions between an adult and a young person.
Jeffry Denman has layers of contradictory intentions as the man, once an inspired history teacher, who steals Luke’s innocence but insists on exposing him to big ideas. Dee Roscioli admirably avoids the sentimental pitfalls and kooky clichés as the free-spirit owner of a garden shop who becomes Luke’s only friend.
It’s the religious community/Greek chorus, alas, that the creators and director Liesl Tommy encourage to surround Luke with oblivion, ignorance and zealous stereotypes. Daniel Jenkins is allowed some sensitive kindness as Luke’s distant father. But even Karen Ziemba — wonderful Kander muse in so many other projects — cannot make us believe the chipper obliviousness and tyrannical cheerfulness of Luke’s mother.
Kander’s score begins with a mournful oboe but finds ways to vary the styles into blues and even show-biz without jarring the tone. This isn’t a big commercial musical, but it takes on a radioactive subject without exploitation and finds some human music in it.