The wind comes sweepin’ down the plain in that famous song about Oklahoma, but the breeze will chill your blood in the emotionally fractured Kansas of the new musical “Kid Victory.” The flat gray fields seem to stretch forever in the photographic backdrop wrapping around the stage at Signature Theatre, and the sounds that the chorus suspends in the air include the occasional ghostly “ooh” and the odd ominous “whish.”
The atmosphere is deliberately post-traumatic, for “Kid Victory” is a musical study of a brutal kidnapping and its aftermath. This confident, psychologically tantalizing two-hour show is the latest work from the relentless 87-year-old lion of American musicals, John Kander, and his comparatively young new sidekick, playwright Greg Pierce, and their collaboration often feels like a troubling indie film. What horrible thing happened to teenage Luke? How will everyone in this small town cope now that he’s back?
Director Liesl Tommy and scenic designer Clint Ramos divide the stage into thirds, with Luke’s straitlaced parents (played by Christopher Bloch and Christiane Noll) at the kitchen table on one side and the funky garden shop run by a free-spirited woman named Emily (a feisty Sarah Litzsinger) on the other. In the middle sits a crate — Luke’s bedroom, which, in an exceptionally creepy touch, doubles as the chamber where the kid is chained and beaten by a sexual predator.
This is not for the fainthearted, for sure, but musicals will edge right up to the limits of turbulent behavior from time to time; “American Idiot,” “Spring Awakening,” “Next to Normal” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” all have moments at least as distressing as anything depicted here. Luckily, Kander and Pierce aren’t just out to shock. “Kid Victory” is inquisitive and deeply empathetic, with an open-hearted score by Kander written for a 10-piece orchestra. The songs, performed to a high standard under Jesse Kissel’s musical direction, burrow into the dark complexities that these confused, wounded characters often find hard to talk about.
Take “You Are the Marble.” The number begins as a slightly inane therapy session with a church volunteer named Gail (an appropriately beaming Donna Migliaccio); the perky melody ripens with the rapture of Gail’s advice and then ramps up into a swirling psychotic episode that overwhelms Luke.
Then there’s the ordeal of “Vinland,” a Viking tale told by Michael, the history teacher turned kidnapper. The song has a playful epic spirit as the chorus reenacts ancient conquests, but Kander pours a cascade of motifs into the number as the history lesson makes its tortured way to Luke’s very present nightmare.
Hearing this score once isn’t enough, but then that also went for Sheryl Crow’s sophisticated pop treatment of Barry Levinson’s “Diner” at Signature this winter. Kander’s arsenal ranges from hopeful hymns to sassy blues, and his earnest grounding allows him to hit notes of pure menace and simply stated hope without sounding bombastic or trite.
Pierce’s book and lyrics sync up well with this score, and the show’s nine terrific actors move easily between Pierce’s understated dialogue scenes and songs that often dwindle thoughtfully back into speech. Noll sings a yearning ballad to Jake Winn’s utterly believable Luke — who, by the way, never sings at all — but also squares off in a hot-tempered, flashy duet with Litzsinger bluntly titled “The Last Thing He Needs.” A modest tap dance even breaks out late in the show, asking “What’s the Point?” of a life without thrills and dares. That’s the same question, of course, that Sally Bowles asks in Kander and the late Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret” (coming to Signature in May, if you want Kander in a different key).
Naturally, the show takes its time unraveling the mystery of what happened — “Why’d you stay?” a puzzled detective asks Luke— and Kander and Pierce have a surprise or two up their sleeves. (Any post-show discussions with psychiatrists should be rich, and possibly contentious.) Jeffry Denman’s sicko stare as Michael is spot-on, but “Kid Victory” is the kind of show that can have this monster sing a soulful, considerate ballad and make you take it seriously. Playing the story straight through without an intermission helps sustain the spell.
The show is a co-production with Manhattan’s Vineyard Theatre, which premiered Kander and Pierce’s “The Landing” in 2013, and it’s carefully titled. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that “Kid Victory” is a screen name Luke created for himself; even before the kidnapping, he was an outsider trying to figure out his sexuality in a forbidding religious climate. Kander and Pierce play this pretty cool: As it is, they’re often flirting with stereotypes of heartland Christians in characterizing Luke’s parents and Gail.
But mostly the show probes its difficult territory in intriguing ways, particularly as Kander keeps pressing for musical routes into these characters’ big hearts and buzzing minds. Nothing is more impressive here than the way he embraces Pierce’s short-story tone and grapples with 21st-century discontents. You can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.
Story by John Kander and Greg Pierce. Music by John Kander; book and lyrics by Greg Pierce. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Choreography, Christopher Windom; musical supervision and vocal arrangements, David Loud; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, David Weiner; sound, Lane Elms. With Laura Darrell, Parker Drown and Bobby Smith. Through March 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org. $40-$110. About two hours.