Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Broadway Theatre Review: Kinky Boots

The new musical by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper is determined to make you feel good

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Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, and Billy Porter. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

You’d think New York critics, with a few exceptions, are a bunch of been-there-done-that curmudgeons. They seem to have had their fill of feel-good and sparkly drag-queen musicals — La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and even Hairspray — and by association, bookwriter Harvey Fierstein’s affinity for themes of tolerance, finding oneself and father-son narratives. But let’s be real: Isn’t it rather nice that a musical about difference and understanding is so obviously, and effortlessly, mainstream?

Of course, their criticisms are also valid. Fierstein’s book for the new Broadway musical Kinky Boots is indeed predictable and riddled with clichés, though it’s largely faithful to the 2005 film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the transvestite Lola (which story was, in turn, inspired by a true story).

Kinky Boots tells the tale of Charlie Price (Stark Sands), who has suddenly inherited his father’s shoe factory, on the verge of bankruptcy, in Northampton, England. While attempting to live up to dad’s expectations, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola (Billy Porter), a transvestite in need of a sturdier, kinkier boot (“The sex is in the heel,” she’s fond to point out). The two join forces — Lola, newly minted designer of sequined stilettos and Charlie, the man who knows the business like the back of his well-shoed heel. Naturally, the two manage to teach each other something about acceptance and coming into one’s own along the way. Such a happy ending is anticipated by the end of the first number evincing “The Most Beautiful Thing” in the world is a shoe — shoes will bring them together, dammit!

It’s a sugar-sweet setup, and it’s also a largely conflict-free one. Charlie accepts Lola from the start, so there’s nowhere for the two to go, or grow (the film’s Charlie takes some convincing before he accepts Lola for who she is). Because of this, Fierstein muddles up Charlie’s character mid-act II, when suddenly Charlie’s a bigoted asshole for no real reason (but only for about the length of a song, whew!). There’s also that incessant father-son issue that rears its ugly, unnecessary head every so often, as well as a love triangle between Charlie, his shallow fiancé (Celina Carvajal in a thankless role) and the factory worker (Annaleigh Ashford) he tries to fire, but ends up falling for instead.

So what’s Kinky Boots got going for it? For starters, Cyndi Lauper offers a surprisingly decent, if generic, Broadway debut with her genre-varied score. Fueling the show with a driving energy and high spirit, Lauper’s assortment of pop, tango and funk is often catchy, always character-driven (though the lyrics can be wanting) and only rarely drags, as it does whenever Charlie or Lola has a moment of earnest or maudlin introspection. Ballads are not Ms. Lauper’s strong points here.

But what does it matter when she offers plenty of poptastic numbers for Lola and her Angels to sashay around to? The biggest thrill of Kinky Boots comes from watching the men (and envying their ridiculously flat stomachs) slip and fold their slim bodies into the skimpiest of costumer Gregg Barnes’s bedazzled outfits and thigh-high stiletto boots as they high-kick, flip, split and  in the best of Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, cheekily slide and shimmy along a shoe conveyer belt. Josh Marquette’s wigs are sleek perfection, David Rockwell’s multi-tiered Billy Elliot-inspired set handsomely allows for movement on multiple levels and those titular heels are two feet of red (never burgundy!) tubular sex. While Mitchell’s choreography isn’t exactly innovative, we’re more than enthralled by the physical prowess of the men in their over-the-top technicolor wardrobes, and Mitchell’s direction keeps it all moving at super-snappy pace.

And luckily for Mitchell, he’s got a talented cast that doesn’t need much tending. As the factory girl who falls for Charlie, the spunky Annaleigh Ashford is a riotous scene stealer with the show’s best song, “The History of Wrong Guys.” With her distorted facial expressions and comic vocal inflections, she nails the Cyndi Lauper lament. It’s a bit of a wonder why her spirited Lauren would go for the sweet but straight-laced Charlie, though. The endearing Stark Sands does what he can, rigorously working to portray an inherently not-that-interesting role, but through no real fault of his own, he seems a bit dull when placed alongside such dynamic personalities as Porter’s Lola.

And Billy Porter was born to play Lola. It’s not that he hasn’t portrayed similar roles before — Belize in Angels in America, even a King Lear in drag (he was fabulous, by the way) — but those were just stepping stones to this. As Lola, he’s electrifying, with enough verve and sass to strut it, and shut it, down over and over again — and in scarily high heels, no less. His delivery is all seductive swagger, and even when Fierstein’s jokes aren’t all that clever, Porter lands them, pricelessly, with a snarl and a snap.

But don’t be fooled by the fierceness: Underneath the diva, when the wig is off and a suit is donned, the shy and wounded Simon, disowned by his father, is revealed, and Porter switches fully and sensitively between the two. Add to this his versatile, husky vocals and you have a stunning Tony Award-worthy performance.

Sure, Kinky Boots‘s flaws are on full display, but so is its unabashed heart, which is propped up with a helluva lot of sequined spectacle and super-high energy. Such musical comedy joy, rarer and rarer these days, is so infectious that even the critics find themselves not entirely immune to the persistent uplift. So why not just give in?

Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Open-ended

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One comment on “Broadway Theatre Review: Kinky Boots

  1. Pingback: Evil Dead, 500,000 hits and Jurassic Park 3D | filmhipster

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2013 by in Broadway, Musical, Theatre, Theatre Reviews and tagged , , , .

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