A little spring may be in your step after seeing Kinky Boots, the musical adaptation of the 2005 movie currently in performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. With a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, this show, which is filled to the brim with glitter and glitz, has strutted confidently into its place as the feel-good musical of the season.
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots follows Charlie Price (Stark Sands, firmly establishing himself as a valuable leading man on Broadway), whose father runs a shoe factory and is saddened by his son’s refusal to take over the family business. Instead, Charlie moves to London with his materialistic fiance Nicola (Celina Carvajal, underwritten and underused) to work in real estate. His father’s sudden death reveals the financial ruin of the factory and Charlie is faced with the decision to somehow save or shut down the business his family has run for four generations. A chance encounter with the drag queen Lola (Billy Porter) causes Charlie to decide that drag queens are the new niche market and he sets out to produce sexy and stylish high-heeled boots that can support a man’s weight.
As Charlie and his employees prepare to debut their new line at a fashion show in Milan, conflicts are faced and lessons are learned, and while at times the book is too preachy and resembles an after-school special, the sheer enthusiasm of the cast and the simple happiness of a story about acceptance (mostly) overshadow the show’s detriments, especially while Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage is featured in the news. And welcome moments of sarcasm pepper the book and score; I felt very relieved when, during the opening number as the company serenaded Charlie with a melody about how a good shoe is “the most beautiful thing in the world,” Charlie responded with, “You all do realize you’re talking about shoes, right?”
Much of the success of Kinky Boots can be credited to the exuberant energy of the cast. As Charlie, Sands gives a solid performance depicting an extremely impressive voice and an ability to bring depth to a character that at times is written to be flat. Porter is excellent as Lola, bringing warmth and vulnerability as well as sass and sex appeal to the part, both in drag and when he appears as Simon, the insecure young man who became Lola. At times, Porter’s voice sounds strained and I found him the most moving when he and Sands duetted on the quietly moving, “Not My Father’s Son,” sharing their childhood scars and fears.
Annaleigh Ashford gives a hilarious performance as factory employee and love interest Lauren, performing the song “The History of Wrong Guys” as a spoof of the 1980’s power ballad, complete with fake wind blowing her hair back. This scene is a refreshing change from the typical romantic interest/ingenue character, and Ashford is a skilled comedic performer, but I was saddened that she only felt an interest in Charlie after he complimented her; and his compliment was only inspired by the act of Lauren helping him. It seemed very self-serving and I wished Lauren was a more developed character. Ashford certainly deserves that, as does Carvajal who plays the foil to Lauren and is written to be nothing more than a stereotype of a selfish woman. When watching her dance in the final ensemble number, I wished I had seen more of her onstage – and that she had more to do.
An interesting aspect of Kinky Boots is the thought it inspires regarding the definition of “a man.” Lola’s presence at the factory, decked out in fabulous drag, where she is hired as a designer, inspires discomfort in some of the small-town residents, and one of the more interesting songs in the second act is “What a Woman Wants,” where Lola tangos with the female employees while arguing with the resident bigot (Daniel Stewart Sherman) about what defines a man. What constitutes as masculinity has been an inspired topic of discussion in today’s culture, and the old-fashioned ideals of “boys will be boys” are moot in my opinion, so I welcomed this idea that a man dressed as a woman could be seen as more of a man than a man dressed in dirty machinery clothes.
The gender-bending lessons of acceptance in Kinky Boots are piled on too heavily in the second act, especially when Lola challenges Don to do the most manly thing possible and “accept someone for who they really are,” and, dressed in a flowing white gown, sings a power ballad to a man who – surprise! – is her father in a nursing home. The scene feels a bit overwrought, but Porter gives a performance of sincere devotion even if his vocals do sound strained on certain notes. And, despite the stylized and energetic performances by Porter and Lola’s Angels in the song, “The Sex is in the Heel,” I, a devoted wearer of flat shoes, felt strongly that standards of beauty for women or men who dress like women should be examined beyond high heels. Costume designer Gregg Barnes clearly had a great time creating these outfits, and, in contrast, David Rockwell’s sets reflect the gritty industrial, low-income feeling of Charlie’s town.
But despite the overwrought Lessons to Learn in Kinky Boots, the joy of the story and the energy of the cast will result in the audience saying echoing the boisterous Act One closing number, “Yeah, yeah,” to the show for time to come.