by John Stoltenberg
“You have no idea what I’ve been through,” says Luke early on in Kid Victory, the nervy and unnerving new musical by John Kander (music) and Greg Pierce (book and lyrics) that just opened at Signature Theatre. Luke (Jake Winn), a lanky, blue-eyed teenager described as “all American” by Suze (Laura Darrell), a girl he once dated, has just returned to the home he grew up in after a year during which he counted among the hundreds of thousands of children under 18 reported missing every year.
Luke’s anguished accusation is addressed to his devout and devoted Mom (Christiane Noll) and Dad (Christopher Bloch) and their fellowship circle from church, all of whom, though well meaning, are overweening in their welcome-back-Luke zeal. The kid is obviously deeply troubled, he wants to be left alone, he doesn’t want to be touched, yet they persist. The awkwardness goes off the charts when Gail (Donna Migliaccio), an overbearing amateur-shrink church lady, tries to draw Luke out in a clueless game of marbles.
It’s like trying to fix up a kid’s PTSD by piling on more trauma, and their efforts are painful to watch. But not nearly as painful as what’s to follow.
As Luke’s story unfolds over the course of two absorbing and disturbing hours, his parents and their fellow churchgoers never do find out what he has been through. Nor does anyone else on stage. Not Detective Marks (Bobby Smith), whose tactless why-didn’t-you-leave? line of inquiry adds victim blaming to Luke’s distress. Not even the lively and lovely garden shop owner Emily (Sarah Litzsinger), who hires him and befriends him. She sings a gorgeous song to him, “People Like Us,” that bonds them beautifully on the basis of their outlier lives.
But we find out. We find out exactly what happened in that missing year of Luke’s life. In fact we find out more than some audience members may wish to know (“Kid Victory contains explicit content,” cautions Signature’s web page. “Viewer discretion is advised.”) And what we finally find out is the dark heart of a brilliant and brave theatrical event, an unflinching exposé in the form of a ticking bombshell of a musical.
The dark pall begins to fall when we meet Michael (Jeffrey Denman), the grown man whom Luke meets anonymously online playing a boat-racing game. Luke is into boats. Really, really into boats. Kid Victory is his racing name. Michael is a cyber-savvy charmer who plays Luke by playing the game with him using the handle Yachticus9. Michael lures Luke to meet IRL/IRT, and Luke jumps at the chance. Michael seems cool. So cool that when in their first scene together the man’s hands are all over the boy, Luke doesn’t get a Creep Alert. But we sure as hell do. And as the back story of Luke’s abduction gets steadily creepier, the show splits into dual dimensions. On one level are great songs and musical numbers, entertainingly and shrewdly directed by Liesl Tommy. On another level a tension steadily builds, also Tommy’s masterful handiwork. We know Luke was not murdered (else there would be no show), but we don’t yet know whether or how he was exploited. What happened to Luke? Will he be okay? What we learn bit by bit becomes almost impossible to bear, not least because Luke’s relationship with Michael has overtones of Stockholm Syndrome.
What follows is a backhanded spoiler alert for those whom the foreg0ing paragraph may have scared away. Besides not being murdered, Luke was not starved or mutilated. He was not trafficked for sex. He was done no permanent bodily harm. Given the horrors that go on in the underworld of predatory pedophiles, the violence depicted onstage in Kid Victory, though shocking, is nowhere near as extreme as what headlines scream. But that does not make it Child Exploitation Lite. For victims there is no Richter Scale for measuring the relative aftershock of trauma. As Kid Victory makes clear, Luke was abused and damaged. Shattered. Changed. Made not himself anymore. And the story that Kander and Pierce devised from that precipitating situation is one of the most important-to-tell original stories ever made into a musical.
One could find holes in the story line without looking too hard. For instance the character of Dad—whose extraordinary final scene with Luke, including his exquisite solo (“Where We Are”), is the emotional showtopper—is passive and unpresent in the early scenes in a way that makes no sense, even when his reasons are eventually explained. Also there’s a scene in which Luke meets up in the woods with Andrew (Parker Down), whom he found on a gay online dating site called Matchstick. It’s a wonderful scene, and it provides Down with an opportunity to show off his tap-dancing chops in a number called “What’s the Point?” that stops the show. It also graphically makes the point that Luke’s exploration of his homoerotic feelings is interrupted by a flashback of what happened to him at the hands or other body parts of Michael. But the scene seems to come out of nowhere, like an Obligatory Queer Interlude. I cannot imagine that the creators meant to suggest that what Michael did to Luke made him gay, but if there were signals in the script that Luke was already not straight before his fateful encounter with Michael, they were so subtle my gaydar missed them.
So the show needs some work. But it’s a show that’s worth it.
Kid Victory is an unusual musical in that its main character, Luke, never sings. In a sense he is the caged bird for whom the entire show sings.
Depending upon one’s curiosity, compassion, and/or concern about what happens to abducted and abused kids—or perhaps simply depending upon one’s taste or tolerance for musicals that tell dark stories—Kid Victory may or may not appeal. I myself was riveted and I cannot stop thinking about what I saw. Signature Theatre’s Kid Victory is one of those shows you can’t unsee…but you must see.