When Bonnie Milligan sings her first few lines in her show-stopping number ‘Better,’ it’s crystal clear she’s a force. It might be surprising for people to find out that her portrayal of the felonious yet loving Aunt Debra in Kimberly Akimbo is only the Ohio-native’s second Broadway production. Bonnie marked her Broadway debut in Head Over Heels in 2018 to rave reviews, but nearly a year after the show closed, the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown Broadway for 20 months, leading her to grapple with her next steps.
“I think with anything that comes in life, when things happen to us, we grow and deepen as human beings. I’ve seen a lot of life and loss in the past five years and there is just a true sense of preciousness I think that I feel about life in general, but especially about being on a Broadway stage when the pandemic shut everything down,” Bonnie explained to HollywoodLife.com in an EXCLUSIVE interview for the 2023 Tony Contenders series. “There was a fear at times of ‘Will this industry ever come back?’ and ‘Will I have to pick a new career?’ ‘What is going to happen?'”
Bonnie booked the role of Aunt Debra in May 2020, shortly after the heartbreaking passing of her father, while she was still home in Ohio and ‘Zooming’ into script readings. “We didn’t really get started until ’21 in person, and I took such delight in the collaboration of being in a room with people. And there’s just nothing like collaboration, that’s what is so beautiful about theater — you really get to be in the room with the writers, with the directors, the choreographers, the other actors from the jump and you’re all creating something together,” she gushed. “I think that has deepened for me as a performer. There’s just gratefulness and a preciousness to also knowing that this could go away at any time and to really be in the moment, which is the message of my show too.”
Bonnie continued, “My head space is what’s happening now and being grateful for where we are and whatever happens, happens. But let’s be here.”
The story of Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire, follows lonely teen Kimberly Levaco (Victoria Clark) who suffers from a disease similar to progeria, which causes her to age rapidly, giving her the appearance of an elderly woman. The poor, young girl is surrounded by dysfunction, as her father is an alcoholic, her pregnant mom is a hypochondriac and quite possibly a narcissist and her aunt, played by Bonnie, is a criminal. “Debra’s not some malicious person. She’s a survivor. She’s a fighter. She is getting by with what she knows she has. She’s not exactly educated or has money, but she’s really good at charming people,” Bonnie explained, comparing her character to a modern day Harold Hill from The Music Man.
“At the core of that, what I found so important was her actual, very genuine, deep love of Kimberly. I think it’s a very complicated love from a person who is selfish, who at the end of the day will have to choose herself. But, I want to find the complication in that,” she continued. “I’ve known some very complicated people in this life that have done complicated things, and they’re not bad people. they’re just damaged. So, that was super important to me and that’s what I wanted to come across in the audience.”
Bonnie admitted that being a part of production the “biggest pleasure and joy,” adding that it has “helped [her] in [her] own grieving” and “staying present.” “I’m in the head space of telling the story and getting to tell the story, and that’s really exciting and refreshing to me,” she gushed.
Kimberly Akimbo is currently on Broadway at The Booth Theater.
Bonnie Milligan is part of HollywoodLife’s Tony Contenders series, in which we interview the biggest current stars on Broadway who are in contention for the upcoming Tony Awards on June 11, 2023.