Bonnie Milligan (‘Kimberly Akimbo’) explores the complexities of love and grief: ‘It’s an honor to provide that kind of catharsis’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“What I find fun about these characters is how to make them human and as real as possible,” explains Bonnie Milligan. The actress is currently starring in the Broadway transfer of “Kimberly Akimbo” as Aunt Debra, a role she originated Off-Broadway to much acclaim. While Milligan displays her signature brand of comedy in the role, she is quick to point out that Debra is more than just a zany criminal with killer vocals. The performer is keen to bring out the complex intermingling of love and grief which define the character, and the musical as a whole. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

In this new musical from David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, Milligan’s Debra arrives at her niece Kimberly’s (Victoria Clark) doorstep with her latest (and highly illegal) money making scheme. Kimberly, a 16 year old girl who appears closer to 70 thanks to a rare genetic disorder, is perhaps the only person left who treats Debra with any affection.

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According to Milligan, Debra is humanized by “a genuine love of Kim.” Debra has pushed away everyone else in her life. “That for me was the key,” says Milligan on deepening her character, “finding a genuine connection.” The love Debra feels for her niece often conflicts with her “intense” selfish needs, which provides a “fun struggle” for the actress to play.

That struggle is on glorious display in the song “Better,” which Milligan describes as Debra’s “mission statement of life.” The actress belts her way through stories of past deceptions, justifying her hilariously awful deeds to Kim and her friends in order to rope them into her web of crime. “You’re watching Deb weave a spell…she’s kind of like Harold Hill,” admits Milligan. Still, she continues, ”there has to be something magical about her that, within minutes, you start singing backup and dancing with her.”

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Moments like “Better” are full of joy, but “Kimberly Akimbo” spends equal time exploring grief. It’s an emotion that Milligan feels close to, having lost her father to pancreatic cancer shortly before booking the Off-Broadway iteration of the musical. “Grief doesn’t go away…it ebbs and flows. So I grow within that,” she notes. That means some moments in the creation and performance of this piece have brought up intense feelings of sadness. But she is thankful that the team which surrounds her during this show has allowed her to embrace whatever feelings come up on any given day.

A recent performance coincided with the day before the anniversary of her Dad’s passing, and her last lucid conversation with him. Grief bubbled up as the musical reached its final number “Great Adventure.” “I had to lip sync the end of that show,” she admits, unable to get out the final lyrics: “you never know and nor do I/when we will have to say goodbye/so just enjoy the time.” Her time in “Kimberly Akimbo” has helped her to accept the tears when they come. “There’s something beautiful in that…it’s an honor to provide that kind of catharsis,” reflects the actress. She’s thankful to portray the complexities of grief and love for those who may need to see those emotions reflected on stage in a healthy light. “You never know who needs it, it’s a privilege to have that task,” confesses Milligan. “There is joy in all of this, and deep love.”

Milligan won a Theatre World Award for “Head Over Heels.” The Off-Broadway production of “Kimberly Akimbo” earned her a Lucille Lortel Award, and nominations from the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle.

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