REVIEW: "Kinky Boots" at Bank of America Theatre

A warm, likable, brassy, sentimental, big-hearted and modestly scaled Broadway musical, “Kinky Boots” updates the issues of “La Cage Aux Folles,” touts acceptance and tolerance, stands behind a fresh-and-zesty Cyndi Lauper score, rolls out some mighty fine drag queens (with none of Arthur Laurents' infamous female interlopers) and adds a dose of “Billy Elliot“-esque, Brit-style, emotional-industrial grit, only without the off-putting profanity and the raw politics. “Kinky Boots” won't change the Broadway world but it has the Chicago tryout audience on its side right from the shoe factory's first whir. And where Chicago goes first, New York usually follows.

If the work that needs to be done gets done, “Kinky Boots,” reviewed Wednesday night, will be a good, solid, highly enjoyable Broadway hit, replete with a pair of very stellar performances — one from the fabulous Billy Porter, who plays the factory-saving transvestite Lola and who drives this show with enormous skill and charm all night long, and a quirkier turn from the Chicago “Wicked” veteran Annaleigh Ashford. She acts as a love interest for Charlie (Stark Sands), the vanilla young man put in charge of a struggling shoe factory when his dad dies, and as a kind of onstage surrogate for Lauper, which, believe it or not, is exactly what this female-friendly show needs. Sands has some fine moments, but he has yet to find his character's way through a story that must, at all costs, stay sufficiently truthful that it can land in that commercial and critical sweet spot between “Once” and, say, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

In her first Broadway score, the pop icon Lauper proves adept at the crafting of not only a hook-heavy, accessible, oft-danceable score, but also of a very viable song-suite that will surprise some on Broadway with its diversity of styles, its melodic fortitude and its lyrical audacity. For his part, the redoubtable, hugely witty and adorably preachy Harvey Fierstein has completed some unfinished business from “La Cage,” continuing his lifelong probing of what it really means to be a man with the fresher musical backdrop that Lauper has afforded him. He takes another look at his beloved drag queens (and, in the case of the lead character, a transvestite) with a slightly edgier sensibility (although this is a strikingly clean and upbeat show) and through the pleasures of an especially musical-friendly British movie that very few people over here have seen and thus will likely find narratively charming. The look of “Kinky Boots,” with a set by David Rockwell, reminds one of the Terry Johnson “La Cage” revival, which is just right.

Director Jerry Mitchell has made some other excellent decisions: He has cast an ensemble who look like actual British factory workers; he's picked drag queens who feel like drag queens (as distinct from Broadway dancers playing drag queens); he keeps the spectacle in check, offers up a fine sense of humor, an affecting message and an outgoing, cohesive sprit that proves exceptionally engaging.

Aside from the lack of an opening number — Lauper will need to write something to replace the currently uninspired melange — Act 1 is in excellent shape, as tryouts go. But Act 2 hits serious problems when a camped-up boxing match that takes place inside the shoe factory (Lola, a boxing transvestite, is fighting a shoe-making, reformable homophobe, deftly played by Daniel Stewart Sherman) is allowed to derail the credibility of the plot and the show suddenly lapses into Las Vegas-style “Peepshow” pastiche, which in turn lurches awkwardly into a long, melodramatic sequence where Sands' Charlie is suddenly revealed as maybe not the tolerant fellow we thought. Therein, Sands looks lost.

The show recovers — the last 20 minutes are terrific — but that problem in the first half of the second act is a major issue, because everyone seems suddenly to forget that “Kinky Boots” actually works because its core narrative of an old-fashioned British shoe factory in Northampton that overcomes recessionary pressures and changing tastes by retrofitting itself as a purveyor of fetishistic footwear for drag queens and other pleasure-seekers who prefer their footwear red and lacy to Burgundy and buttoned-down, was based on a true story.

The other main problem with the show at this juncture is that the stakes are just not high enough for the workers, who are a likable crew (the ensemble is a huge asset in this show) but who dramaturgically are overly passive. There has to be more at stake for them when the factory nearly goes under; right now, it feels mostly like another day at the office, except drag queens are showing up.

Fixing that (and dialing back the boxing match and making sense of Charlie's meltdown) make up Job One. Job Two is getting rid of a sentimental lads-and-dads finale visual that seems to undermine the show's message of self-determination. Job Three is to flesh out the villainous fiancee, gamely played by Celina Carvajal but too close to archetype for comfort. Job Four? Give a Brit or two a sweep of the book with an eye to authenticity, so we might avoid people “graduating” from high school and other little cultural errors. Unlike most film-to-musical transitions, Fierstein avoids being trapped in those musical-killing small cinematic scenes, lingering in the right theatrical spots. But he runs into trouble with the confusing switches back and forth to London. Why do we even need to go there? I spent my childhood not far from Northampton and there were plenty of little drag bars in those Northern towns; I used to hang out at one. Why can't Lola be from the same area? That would only deepen the connection Fierstein wants.

The 2005 film was one of several British movies of the era to celebrate fusty, repressed U.K. institutions (and thus, by implication, U.K. social attitudes) finally getting with a cool Britannia program. Fierstein recasts the main issue as not so much saving the shoe factory, but as two young men (Porter's Lola had an abusive dad), learning to step out from the shadow of their fathers and accept each other. This is, of course, ideal thematic territory for Lauper, who has stood for such things her entire career and who clearly found much in this story to inspire her music — the ballads “Hold Me In Your Heart,” “I'm Not My Father's Son” and “So Long, Charlie,” which segues beautifully into a song called “The Soul of a Man,” are all potent, as are the danceable disco ditties “Sex Is in the Heel” and “Raise You Up/Just Be.” Along with Fierstein and Mitchell's warmth and conviction, they will propel this show to success, as long as the soles become solid and the heels made true.

3.5 STARS

When: Through Nov. 4

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.

Tickets: $33-$100; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

 

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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