Kinky Boots

Tell people that you’re going to see a show called Kinky Boots and they’re instantly intrigued. It sounds like a show that might add some flair to a sometimes staid art form. This splashy, flashy musical certainly does add some pizazz to the Great White Way, albeit in a rather traditional way and with varying degrees of success.

Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 film, is a good old traditional book musical. Book writer Harvey Fierstein (Newsies, Safe Men) knows his way around the book of a musical and does nice work integrating the book with the score, even if the book itself somewhat lazily borrows heavily from the film. (The stage version does incorporate some moments that did not make the final cut of the film but are available in the DVD extras. Their inclusion helps bring closure to the story’s heart.) And like the first book musicals, Kinky Boots uses the show-within-a-show device to make itself more palatable. (More on that later.)

In what’s becoming another tradition on the boards, the score is written by a pop star: Cyndi Lauper, of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” fame. What’s evident in Lauper’s score is that she’s a better lyricist—a true storyteller—than she is a composer. The uninspired score is full of generic rock, pop and disco tunes, none of which sound particularly lush, theatrical or new. But the lyrics often transcend the music, with anthemic cheers and heartfelt phrases that will “raise you up,” as the song implores. 

Not surprising given the writer, many of the songs play like ready-made pop singles. And that could, actually, catalyze a renaissance of what used to be a theatrical tradition, Broadway songs landing on mainstream radio stations. (I think the last time this happened was in the 60s with Hair.) If the folks over at Kinky Boots don’t team up with Lady Gaga and have “Sex is in the Heels” on the radio by this summer, then they don’t know what they’re doing. 

All that said, the music is still oodles of fun, save for the “I’m Not My Father’s Son” number that stops the show—in a bad way. It’s the penultimate song of act one and while I understand the necessity of expressing that sentiment for the sake of character development and strengthening the heart of the show, it is too slow and too long for my taste, and I found my mind wandering. 

Jerry Mitchell (Catch Me if You Can) serves as both director and choreographer. The direction is only fine (though I applaud the way he inventively uses the players and an elastic band to create a boxing ring), but the choreography is better. Much like the Cagelles in La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots’ Angels (all chorus boys in drag) look amazing doing wondrous moves—and all while in crazy high stiletto, kinky shoes. 

Mitchell directs a talented company, led by Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford and Billy Porter. Sands plays Charlie Price, a young man in North Hampton, England, who, upon his father’s death, must take over the Price and Sons shoe factory and figure out how to save it. When his employee, Lauren (Ashford), challenges him to do something, to find his niche market, Charlie meets Lola (Porter), a drag queen chanteuse who needs women’s shoes that are up to the challenge of supporting her male body. 

Sands does nice work, even if he lacks commanding charisma. (I felt the same way about his performance in American Idiot.) I was surprised, however, that though I saw him numerous times in American Idiot and have listened to the cast recording even more, I forgot what a great voice he has. His voice impresses as he makes a valiant effort in a somewhat vanilla role, though he is ultimately outshined by the bravura performances of his costars. 

As the plucky Lauren, Ashford (Heathers, Dogfight) steals the show. She has the comedic instincts of Gilda Radner, the leading lady looks and charm of Reese Witherspoon and a powerhouse of a voice that can sell any song. Ashford has been building up her credits and this is her breakthrough. Expect to see a lot more of her in the years to come. 

But of course this show would be nothing without the complicated, beautiful and outspoken person filling those kinky boots. Bringing the wonder that is Lola to life is the inimitable Billy Porter (The Broken Hearts Club), giving a performance that is the definition of fierce. Porter absolutely commands the stage (giving Sands a lesson in selling the eleven o’clock number, with his rendition of “Hold Me in Your Heart”) and looks better than any ten women on the runways of Milan as he struts in his kinky boots and the other glorious frocks designed by Gregg Barnes. (Hair design is by Josh Marquette and make-up design is by Randy Houston Mercer.)

And as for that traditional show-within-a-show device? It does exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is help the audience suspend its disbelief and allow for all the outrageousness going on on stage. Kinky Boots is big and splashy and flashy, but the schmaltz is appropriate for the story and its characters. Many of the louder and more colorful moments would seem garish in South Pacific, but, as I remarked about Bring It On, they work here because they’re in the show’s vernacular. 

For those of you who are fans of the film, don’t fret over the loss of the film’s memorable soundtrack. Whereas in the movie songs were shoe-horned in to fit the moment, in the stage adaptation the songs are tailor-made for the emotional moments of the story, moving the story along and revealing depth of character in a way that interpolated songs can’t. So in the end you’ll find yourself bopping along and raising yourself up as you rejoice in the characters’ originality and the way they own their identities. Everybody say yeah!


For more information and to purchase tickets, visit kinkybootsthemusical.com.

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