Justin Cooley paved a short path from his high school’s theater stage in Kansas to the Booth Theatre in New York.
The young actor stars in the new Broadway musical “Kimberly Akimbo” opposite Tony-winner Victoria Clark. Cooley originated the role during an off-Broadway run last year, which was extended and ultimately transferred to Broadway this fall. The production marks the young actor’s professional debut: he graduated high school in 2021.
Originally from Kansas City, Cooley was a finalist for the 2021 Jimmy Awards, aka the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. Soon after, while early in his first semester of college in Texas, Cooley was contacted by the “Kimberly Akimbo” team to audition for the new production in New York.
“I honestly was so honored and surprised to even be there,” says Cooley of the accolade. “I had seen the Jimmy Awards all my high school career. The coolest and most talented upperclassmen that I looked up to go there. So when I was there I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ It felt out of my depth, but it was incredible.”
Clark stars in “Kimberly Akimbo” as the titular Kimberly, a high school student who appears as an old woman due to an aging disease; Cooley portrays Seth, her tuba-playing kindred spirit classmate and romantic interest.
Cooley’s first impression of the role? “I was like, yeah, this definitely makes sense for me,” says Cooley of Seth, who has a particular affection for anagrams. “He was a weird, eccentric, kooky kid. I played things like that before, and I knew I could inhabit the authenticity of that.”
The story features a dysfunctional family (think check fraud and substance abuse) and love triangle-slash-square in the form of an a capella quartet. It’s a comedy, and while the premise veers dark, the tone remains buoyant throughout.
“Especially in Broadway’s current era, you have a lot of stuff that goes dramatic and dark even when it is comedy. That’s what I thought we were doing [with ‘Kimberly Akimbo’], but honestly it’s a subversion of that,” says Cooley, adding that the production has connected with audiences across all age ranges. “This is about people who are unequipped and not the best people and not in the best situation, trying to make the best of it,” he adds. “But we wanna focus on the ‘best of it’ part, rather than the unequipped, not great people part. It’s definitely a carpe diem story of hope.”
Cooley notes that he and Clark became “fast friends,” despite the four-decade age gap between the costars. “She’s so open and fun and dorky, and wanted to really mentor me and support me as a parental figure as I moved here [to New York], and then obviously as a friend and as a costar,” he says. “Seeing a Tony Award-winning incredible actress come down to her roots and be raw and be human and weird, really inspired me to do the same in a space where I was afraid to be vulnerable.”
Boosted by rave critical reviews and early audience fandom, the musical is shaping up to be a powerhouse heading into the Tonys next year. The Off-Broadway production picked up numerous awards and several wins, including the Drama Desk Award and Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical; Cooley was nominated for best actor by both awards organizations, and was honored with the Theatre World Award, which recognizes outstanding NYC stage debuts.
“Getting my first awards, there was a lot of shock; there was kind of imposter syndrome,” says Cooley. “[Seth] really resonated with a lot of people,” he continues. “And so that kind of grounded me in it, and I was just glad to share that. The recognition has been an incredible honor, and I think above it all has just sealed an understanding for me, like, yeah, you should continue trying this. You should continue giving your all; you have the ability to share something special with the world and people are receiving it.”
Cooley grew up singing in a choir, but didn’t start acting until high school; his first production was “Hairspray” as a freshman. He continued auditioning and slowly moved up from the ensemble to a supporting role and, in his junior year, was cast as the lead. “And by my senior year I decided I should try doing this for my life,” he says.
“I’m really honored and feel so lucky to start my career with this type of project that’s so intimate and so personal, and really adding something special to the world,” Cooley adds of his first — likely, far from last — Broadway stint. “That’s always been my highest aspiration, and the fact that I get to be a part of it right now — it’s just incredible.”