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Kinky Boots: Theater Review

Kinky Boots Broadway Still - P 2013
Matthew Murphy
Billy Porter

The Bottom Line

Drag queens just want to have fun – in heels that can withstand the punishment.

Venue

Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast

Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford, Celina Carvajal, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Marcus Neville

Director-choreographer

Jerry Mitchell

Grammy winner Cyndi Lauper makes her debut as a musical-theater composer with this stage adaptation of the 2005 Miramax movie about a struggling British shoe factory.

NEW YORK – Who doesn’t love Cyndi Lauper? A proudly idiosyncratic pop priestess since the early ‘80s, she’s always been way more real than her contemporary, Madonna, let alone such 21st century descendants as Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Rocking the thrift-store chic and subjecting her hair to chemical torture, Lauper has made a career out of celebrating her extravagant individuality and everybody else’s with the unpretentious chutzpah of a true-blue Queens girl. The fact that her infectious spirit shines through every number in her first Broadway musical score is unquestionably the chief asset of Kinky Boots, helping to elevate the show above its familiar template.

The novice composer-lyricist is also a good match for Harvey Fierstein, whose warm-hearted book for this aggressively uplifting musical hews close to the 2005 Miramax movie, making smart choices when it does diverge.

Kinky Boots came late in a line of charming but formulaic British screen successes, in which economic hard times and battered self-worth were alleviated by such means as a brass band (Brassed Off), a male stripper act (The Full Monty), ballet (Billy Elliot) and menopausal nudity (Calendar Girls). In this case, a sinking East Midlands shoe factory and a young man who had lost sight of a proud family tradition find salvation by making fetishistic footwear for the underserved drag queen market.

While the film was inspired by a true story, its weakness was that the outcome was never in doubt, and the conflicts set up along the way felt feeble and mechanical. Under the hard-sell stewardship of director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, that remains true of the musicalized stage translation. But the exuberance of its easy-to-embrace message, its catchy numbers and triumphant tranny-palooza finale make this a raucous crowdpleaser despite its obviousness.

A brave soul takes a credit in the show’s Playbill as dialect coach, but this might be the shakiest assortment of fake English accents ever assembled on a Broadway stage. However, David Rockwell’s set brilliantly evokes the superannuated grittiness of every depressed British small-factory town, with ironwork, lead lights and a conveyer belt that’s put to inventive use by Mitchell in the Act I closing number, “Everybody Say Yeah.” That setting, and the appealingly motley factory crew, makes it easy to root for these folks to catch a break.

That break initially seems unlikely to come via Charlie Price (Stark Sands), the reluctant heir to Price and Son shoe manufacturers. He is being propelled to a new life in London by his climber fiancée Nicola (Celina Carvajal) when his father (Stephen Berger) dies unexpectedly. But a light bulb pops after a chance encounter with flamboyant drag performer Lola (Billy Porter), and a few words about niche-market diversification from spunky factory worker Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), one of the employees made redundant by the regretful Charlie.

What happens between that spark of an idea and the presentation of Price and Son’s fierce new line in thigh-highs on a Milan runway will surprise nobody, whether they saw the movie or not. Will Charlie emerge from the shadow of his father to become his own man? Will his abruptly manifested prejudices about Lola’s gender-bending life choices inhibit their collaboration? Will they even make it to the International Shoe Fair with their dwindling funds and crumbling factory morale? And will shallow Nicola reveal her true colors, allowing Charlie to save Lauren from her lousy track record with men? Meh.

As predictable as the show is, it’s saved by how neatly the material plays to both Fierstein and Lauper’s strengths. Acceptance and celebration of the sexually marginalized has often been the writer’s central theme (notably in his adaptation of the musical La Cage aux Folles), along with reflections on what defines a man. That aspect plays out here in the parallel journeys of Charlie and Lola, both of whom have struggled with father issues.

But the real distinction is Lauper’s songs. Unsurprisingly, they are closer to melody-driven pop tunes than standard musical theater numbers. But that’s no bad thing, and it by no means suggests they don’t display a firm grasp of character and an ability to fuel the plot. From the Price and Son radio jingle heard intermittently to the disco anthems of Lola and her leggy drag sisters – “I’m black Jesus, I’m black Mary; But this Mary’s legs are hairy,” goes one of the more outré lyrics – the toe-tapping songs show an impressive range of styles and are smoothly integrated into the story. They are energized by Stephen Oremus’ orchestrations, which dip liberally into multiple pop decades for inspiration.

Among the standouts are Lola’s pounding funk ode to the stiletto, “Sex is in the Heel,” which sounds like a lost Sylvester track from the late ‘70s; Lauren’s recap of her bad dating habits, “The History of Wrong Guys,” amusingly socked across by scene-stealer Ashford; and Charlie’s soaring emo ballad, “The Soul of a Man,” which has echoes of vintage Elton John and Bernie Taupin and is given stellar treatment by Sands. In most shows, one 11 o’clock number would suffice, but nobody’s going to grumble about Lauper doubling up when she follows Sands’ big song by having Porter release his inner Jennifer Holliday in “Hold Me in Your Heart.”

Charlie and Lola share a poignant duet that establishes their common ground, “I’m Not My Father’s Son.” But Mitchell has not reconciled the contrasting performance styles of the actors in the two central roles. While Sands is low-key and naturalistic to the point of blandness in the early going, Porter’s mugging could stand to come down a notch – or several. Playing almost every line with a lewd growl and a pandering wink at the audience, his Lola tends to steamroll the idea of the bruised man within. But the crowd clearly loves a sassy black drag queen and Porter knows it.

If Mitchell the director too often favors cartoonishness, his work as a choreographer has just the right punch, and Lauper has delivered him a rousing self-affirmation curtain number in which the entire cast gets to strut their stuff. (The Milan finale is an improvement on the movie’s limp closing act.) It also provides the cue for costumer Gregg Barnes to pull out all the stops in the glitz-and-heels department. The generic “Just be who you wanna be” refrain might be recycled from countless other Broadway musicals at this point, but audiences craving feelgood candy will eat it up.

Venue: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford, Celina Carvajal, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Marcus Neville, Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Andy Kelso, Tory Ross, Jennifer Perry, Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Marquise Neal, Adinah Alexander, Eugene Barry-Hill, Stephen Berger, Caroline Bowman, Eric Leviton, Ellyn Marie Marsh, John Jeffrey Martin

Director-choreographer: Jerry Mitchell

Book: Harvey Fierstein, based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane, Tim Firth

Music and lyrics: Cyndi Lauper

Set designer: David Rockwell

Costume designer: Gregg Barnes

Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner

Sound designer: John Shivers

Music director: Brian Usifer

Music supervision, arrangement & orchestrations: Stephen Oremus

Presented by Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig, James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Independent Presenters Network, CJ E&M, Jayne Baron Sherman, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Judith Ann Abrams, Yasuhiro Kawana, Jane Bergere, Allan S. Gordon & Adam S. Gordon, Ken Davenport, Hunter Arnold, Lucy & Phil Suarez, Bryan Bantry, Rob Fierstein & Dorsey Regal, Jim Kierstead/Gregory Rae, BB Group/Christina Papagjika, Michael DeSantis/Patrick Baugh, Brian Smith/Tom & Connie Walsh, Warren Trepp, Jujamcyn Theaters