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theater review

Theater Review: Kinky Boots Steps Up and Stands Out

Early on in Kinky Boots, set in a backwater British shoe factory, we see pair after pair of brogues rolling out, slowly, on conveyor belts.  It’s likely meant to convey the humdrum nature of Price & Son, old-line shoemakers; the products are brown, stolid, very traditional. And in fact there’s a whiff of the production line in the play itself: By 8:05 p.m., you can pretty much devise not only the storyline but how all the secondary characters and B plots are going to fit into it. These shoes come already broken in.

So, okay, it’s not Company — nobody’s reinventing the form here. That’s all right. What we have, in Kinky Boots, is a well-fitted, well-staged toe-tapper in the contemporary big-Broadway idiom. It’s never boring; it’s never shocking; you are likely to leave entirely entertained and satisfied. Can’t argue with that. The Boy George musical Taboo, which went down some of the same yellow brick roads in 2002, was a somewhat more ambitious show that never cohered; Kinky Boots is clearer, brighter, and much, much better.

That familiar plot — doubly so if you’ve seen the 2005 movie — echoes that of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls: British provincials, facing hard economic times, cook up a sexy scheme to stave off foreclosure and ruin. (Sexual self-liberation is good economic development policy!) Here, it’s Charlie Price (Stark Sands), reluctant heir to his father’s fading business in Northampton, who’s trying to avoid laying off dad’s loyal staff. As orders for his products diminish, he encounters a clubful of London drag queens — whose patent-leather thigh-high boots are atrociously made. An untapped market has thus presented itself; the factory workers range from hostile to puzzled to enthusiastic; Charlie’s citified fiancée tries to persuade him to abandon his scheme; Lola (Billy Porter), the lead drag queen, gradually educates Charlie and his minions; and, yes, there is a footwear runway show at the end. And, yes, the boys-as-girls do look great walking it, especially the impossibly leggy gal played by Charlie Sutton.

About the drag queens: Should it even be remarkable that they don’t seem remarkable? At one point, while schooling Charlie, Lola announces to him that “drag is mainstream,” and that’s a truism (we’re all in a 1,400-seat Broadway house, after all, not a little club somewhere) but of course it also isn’t (plenty of people would be gobsmacked to see them here). Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the musical’s book, has said that he didn’t want this show to be a lecture — there’s no “I Am What I Am” here, and when RuPaul’s Drag Race teaches that lesson weekly in between reaction shots, it’s hardly necessary.  Instead, the emphasis is on growing into self-and-other-acceptance, and that idea’s hit pretty heavily in the second act. At just a few too many points, one character plants himself mid-stage and tells the less enlightened how to think. Half as many of those moments would’ve been twice as powerful, particularly in a setting where the audience is already sympathetic. The spirit of these scenes is unassailable; the goopiness that they add to the last half-hour of the show isn’t.

The energy level stays up, though, in no small part owing to Cyndi Lauper. Turns out that she has a great knack for writing theater songs, and although that shouldn’t be a surprise — “Time After Time” could be a great Broadway ballad, when you think about it — it is, probably because a lot of pop stars founder in these waters. (Either she’s a theatergoer herself, or maybe she just got some coaching from Fierstein, the pro’s pro.) At least one tune is an astonishingly close quote of the disco standard “Turn the Beat Around”; another,  a song about the boots themselves called “Sex Is in the Heel,” has a guaranteed future in karaoke clubs everywhere. Lauper also has an onstage surrogate in the young actress Annaleigh Ashford, who puts on a bent East Midlands accent and completely wins over the house with her big song, “The History of Wrong Guys.” It would’ve sat perfectly comfortably on one of Lauper’s eighties albums, and Ashford even sounds a lot like her, once you account for the distance from Ozone Park to Northampton. Proof positive: Girls and boys everywhere, and especially boys who enjoy dressing as girls, do wanna have fun.

Kinky Boots is at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

Photo: Matthew Murphy