Kinky Boots with score by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein is not high art, and will never be considered groundbreaking in the world of music theater. But after a slow start, it is a hell of a good time, and its weak lyrics are often redeemed by amazing performances and a book that is compassionate and honest. Indeed, it’s a bumpy ride, with a lot of head scratching, but its message is timely and uplifting, and in the end I was smiling, along with the rest of the theater.
Based on true events, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie, played by Stark Sands, who’s recently inherited factory is close to foreclosure. After a chance meeting with drag queen Lola, played by Billy Porter, a spark of inspiration hits: the transvestite shoe market will save the factory (and the town, too!).
I was excited to see what Cyndi Lauper would deliver for a Broadway score, but I knew not to get my hopes up. The past few years have produced more than a few mediocre scores by pop musicians. Unfortunately, the score of Kinky Boots falls into this same category. Sure, the lyrics are catchy at times and the chorus has a hook, but instead of “if you’re lost you can look and you will find me,” I was stuck with the repetitive and unimaginative “what a man, what a man, what a man, what a man”. I was waiting with baited breath for a truly great song to appear, but unfortunately it never did. There were some heartfelt musical moments, but this was due to the performances of the actors, and not the writing. It is a shame, because Lauper has given us so many wonderful songs over the years. Alas, we have no past, we won’t reach back.
The show opens with Charlie’s father singing to him about “The Most Beautiful Thing.” Which is? Of course: a practical, well built pair of mens shoes. The actors struggle to make this opening work dancing about holding mens shoes. They work hard, but they struggle in vain. Charlie spent the first twenty minutes of the show bemoaning his life stuck in the world of practical shoes, while I bemoaned the possibility that I would be stuck in that theater for the next two hours listening to endless numbers about mens shoes. And then a miracle happened… a miracle in the form of a drag queen named Lola.
Kinky Boots was not on my list for shows to see this season, until my friends started raving about Billy Porter’s performance as Lola. They were right. I am sure he will be nominated for the Tony, and probably win it. Put simply, Porter makes this show worth the price of admission. Porter plays the role of Lola with humanity, humor, and… oh, that voice. In the world of music theater he is regarded as one of the best voices ever, for good reason. I have listened to his recordings over and over again finding something new in his interpretation every time. What I didn’t know was that Porter’s acting is just as powerful as his voice. When he comes on stage it is as if the whole show is lifted out of its mediocre shoe world into a fantastic, vibrant reality.
The book by Harvey Fierstein has some lovely moments that explore what it is to be a drag queen in a world that is not so accepting of differences, a world that includes Lola’s estranged father. Fierstein had already written one of the definitive works that explores this issue (as well as, in this case, homosexuality), Torch Song Trilogy. Kinky Boots does not ring with the same poignancy of that piece, but it gives it a good try, and in Porter’s adept hands, Lola provides a dramatic anchor to a piece that could otherwise be adrift in a sea of cliche.
I learned an important fact in my college club going days: life is better with drag queens. And so it is with Kinky Boots. I imagine that Jerry Mitchell, the show’s Director and Choreographer also realized this important fact when putting together this show. Jerry Mitchell is no stranger to big musical numbers. Hairspray, Legally Blonde, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are just a few of the hit musicals he has been a part of. Just like these hits, Kinky Boots delivers huge dance numbers that propel the show forward. Whenever this show is feeling heavy in its shoefactoriness, the drag queens appear in flashy costumes and give us an energetic number. One number done on treadmills is especially exciting… and might have you on the edge of your seat, it looks so precarious. There is another moment when one queen kicks her leg in the air and falls into a perfect split, followed by another who does handsprings across the stage, both in high heels. Sound glorious? It was.
In most circumstances I would not think of drag queens as family fun, but Mr. Mitchell makes it work and I would take my five year old nephew to see this show in a heartbeat. I would even take my Mormon mother because in the end this show is not about sexy drag queens. It’s about embracing our individuality and accepting people for who they are.
The strongest number of the show is the duet “I’m Not My Father’s Son” sung by Sands and Porter. The book and music finally come together beautifully as Charlie and Lola sing about the thing that connects them, the longing to live up to the expectations of a father and the path to finding individuality, despite those expectations. It is an exquisite moment.
Sadly, the moment ends, and the show again becomes mired in clunky lyrics and shoe factoriness. There were other strong performances, but the actors had a tough job selling the material.
Stark Sands gives a great performance as Charlie, with a strong voice and intense conviction. It is a shame that his big ten o’clock number “The Soul of a Man” is the worst number in the show. The opening lyrics are almost Dr. Suessian in their rhyming. Sands pours in blood, sweat and tears, but it’s not enough to cover up those bad lyrics. Oh Cyndi, was that good enough? Good enough for you?
Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Lauren, is a pitch perfect comedian with a crystal clear voice. Her big number “The History of the Wrong Guys” is one of the high moments of the show and her presence is a constant breath or fresh air on a stage cluttered with shoes.
Daniel Sherman also gives a solid performance as Don, the bigot who faces a moral upheaval.
The set barely merits mention because there is nothing inspired about it. It’s a shoe factory. A shoe factory that converts to other locations every now and again, but mostly a shoe factory.
If Kinky Boots starts with a whimper, it makes up for it by ending with a bang. The entire cast assembles on stage adorned in kinky boots, singing “Just be who you wanna be, never let ’em tell you who you ought to be. Just be with dignity, celebrate your life triumphantly”. This joyful moment is intoxicating, and is why in the end this show is a success. We are left with a rallying cry sung out loud, of love and acceptance, relevant to the currently evolving political climate, pointing towards a world of diversity. And it’s beautiful, like a rainbow.