‘Kinky Boots’ kicks Broadway butt

 

'BOOTS' IS A KICK: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, The Angels (L-R: Kyle Taylor Parker, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Paul Canaan and Kyle Post) & cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘BOOTS’ IS A KICK: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, The Angels (L-R: Kyle Taylor Parker, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Paul Canaan and Kyle Post) & cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

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KINKY BOOTS
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Adapted from the Miramax film Kinky Boots,
written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 West 45th Street
(212-239-6200), http://kinkybootsthemusical.com/

 

By Scott Harrah

Broadway has not had an original, big-budget musical as infectious and joyful as Kinky Boots since The Book of Mormon. However, unlike that irreverent blockbuster, this is far more traditional Broadway fare, with a superior score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper.

While there is so much to savor in this energetic, razzle-dazzle show, the main reason to see the musical stage adaptation of the titular 2005 British indie film is Ms. Lauper’s unforgettable songbook.  Ms. Lauper , who wrote all the music and lyrics, makes us overlook Harvey Fierstein’s often predictable book and gives Boots the “kick” it needs by supplying a steady flow of seamless songs, ranging  from the dance pop that made her a household name to guitar-driven rock and soaring, emotional ballads. Many of the songs have the potential to become future Broadway standards.

There is little here we have not seen before (from Fierstein’s own La Cage aux Folles to the recent jukebox adaptation of Priscilla, The Musical). However, the timing in 2013 for a gender-bending musical about acceptance, tolerance, and what it means to be a man could not be better. Young Charlie Price (Stark Sands) has just inherited the bankrupt Price & Son shoe factory in Northampton, England from his recently deceased father.   While dealing with the grief and growing increasingly frustrated with his posh, demanding girlfriend, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), Charlie must find a way to make the factory profitable by creating a shoe no one else is producing. Along comes high-spirited black drag queen Lola (Billy Porter), hired by Charlie to be a designer, and one can guess much of what happens next.  Price & Son starts producing footwear for crossdressers, and lots of chaos amongst the working-class “blokes” and Lola ensues.  The premise, although flimsy, is brilliantly directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, and provides the right framework for Ms.Lauper’s vivacious songs and Tony winner Greg Barnes’ beautiful, outrageous costumes.

Act One delivers more frenetic spectacle than any overproduced, high-tech pop concert.  Highlights include “The Land of Lola,” the camp brilliance of “Sex is in the Heel” (featuring Lola vamping around with her entourage of drag sisters in thigh-high patent leather boots), and Charlie and Lola’s tear-jerker “I’m Not My Father’s Son.”  In the latter, the story of the two men’s battles with their respective fathers, sung with harmonic conviction by Mr.Sands and Mr. Porter, tugs at the proverbial heartstrings without being overly sappy and sentimental.   It is a song anyone who never lived up to his or her parents’ expectations can relate to, and numbers like this help Kinky Boots keep things real.

Act Two is stuffed with filler, but the onstage antics are so gleefully uplifting, audiences will gladly overlook the padding. In “Hold Me in Your Heart,” Lola belts out lyrics with passion and a vibrato that is truly haunting.  By the finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” even those who normally hate musical theater will have a hard time not clapping along, overcome by the cathartic vigor of it all.

There is a cornucopia of talent here, and director Jerry Mitchell makes them all gel cohesively, but one of the standouts is certainly Mr. Sands as Charlie.  In any show featuring a drag queen, the “straight” man playing opposite him is sometimes overshadowed.  However, the character arc and transformation of Charlie, from naïve English small-town guy to broadminded businessman, is far more believable and realistic than Mr. Porter as Lola.  Mr. Porter has a gorgeous singing voice and his performance is full of sass and wit, but the character of Lola, as written by Mr. Fierstein, seems like a hybrid of RuPaul and, well, gravelly voiced Harvey Fierstein in any of his Broadway roles.

Last fall, when Kinky Boots opened in Chicago, critics pointed out the absurdity of Americans doing British accents. Mr. Fierstein’s dialogue is loaded with U.K. colloquialisms, from “sod” to “wanker,” but these terms are unfamiliar to most Americans, and watching New York actors trying to speak like Brits is inane.  Only the gifted Annaleigh Ashford, as Lauren, the factory worker who eventually wins Charlie’s heart, delivers lines in an authentic regional English accent.  In a show created by two show-biz heavyweights as all-American as Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein, one wonders why the setting was not simply changed from England to any small factory town in America.  Fortunately, the songs are so universally appealing that the geographical setting is ultimately not an issue.

Many pop and rock artists have written Broadway show scores in the past, but Ms. Lauper has set a new high standard for the genre, with a pop effervescence that is crisp, richly textured and consistently entertaining. No, she’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber, but she isn’t trying to be.  However, like those musical masters, Ms. Lauper knows how to propel a story forward with big, catchy melodies and hook-laden lyrics, filled with the requisite mix of sincerity, spunk, and accessibility, and Kinky Boots cements her status as a force in the pantheon of American musical theater.

Here is that rare show that, at the final curtain call, does not get the obligatory standing ovation because the person in front of you has stood up and blocks your view, creating a ripple effect. Kinky Boots and its cast get a standing ovation because they have earned and deserve it. You may want to be the first person who stands up and cheers.

 

 SCORE & CAST GIVE 'BOOTS' ITS SOUL: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford (center). Photo: Matthew Murphy


SCORE & CAST GIVE ‘BOOTS’ ITS SOUL: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford (center). Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

BOYS OF 'BOOTS': (L-R) Billy Porter, Daniel Stewart Sherman, & Marcus Neville (right). Photo: Matthew Murphy

BOYS OF ‘BOOTS’: (L-R) Billy Porter, Daniel Stewart Sherman, & Marcus Neville (right). Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

 HIGH KICKS FOR 'BOOTS': The cast of 'Kinky Boots.' Photo: Matthew Murphy


HIGH KICKS FOR ‘BOOTS’: The cast of ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

'LADY' IN RED: Billy Porter & The Angels (L-R: Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto, and Paul Canaan). Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘LADY’ IN RED: Billy Porter & The Angels (L-R: Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto, and Paul Canaan). Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published April 7, 2013
Reviewed at press performance on April 6, 2013

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