BWW Reviews: No Kinks Here, KINKY BOOTS is a Crowd-Pleaser
If last night's 10-minute standing ovation is any indication, “Kinky Boots” is a bona fide, crowd-pleasing hit.
If you've been waiting for the reviews to come in before buying your tickets, you might want to forgo the heels and put on your flats. You're going to need them to race down to the Bank of America Theater to get tickets. Like "The Producers" before it, Chicago is being treated to a first look at what should be one of the Broadway season's biggest hits. And the show is only here to Nov. 4 and thus should quickly become the hottest ticket in town –and quite deservedly.
Based on the 2005 sleeper film of the same name, “Kinky Boots” features a book by Tony winning playwright Harvey Fierstein, a score and lyrics by Grammy-winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper and energetic and well-paced direction and choreography from Tony award-winning director Jerry Mitchell. It's a rousing, heartfelt and sentimental musical that happens to have a drag queen front and center.
"Kinky Boots" tells the story of Charlie Price (Stark Sands) who, after his father's death, reluctantly leaves his more urban-minded fiancé Nicola (Celina Carvajal) in London to return home to Northhampton to run the family's shoe business. The shoe business is in decline and Charlie is faced with the possibility that he may have to soon sack several of the factory workers, including the feisty Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford).
After a chance meeting in London with a drag queen (Billy Porter, as Lola) with a broken highheel boot, Charlie decides that the niche market of women's shoes for men might just be the thing to save the family business, but he'll have to convince the closed minded blue collar workforce and Lola (whom he wants to design the shoes) that it is a good idea.
As Lola, Billy Porter is mesmerizing in a performance that will surely earn him a Tony nomination. His Lola is equal parts Tina Turner and Whitney Houston, fierce in his delivery of both line and song.
Annaleigh Ashford, best known to Chicago audiences as Glinda in the sit-down production of “Wicked” nearly stops the show with the hilarious “The History of the Wrong Guys” (which also happens to be the most Lauper-sounding song in the show.
Barring some miraculous recovery, the economic climate in the musical should resonate with theatergoers (assuming, of course, economically depressed factory workers can afford to go to live theater; hey, there's always the TKTS ticket booth). In an age of Bain-style venture capitalism, the very idea that Charlie would choose to return home and save the family business (as opposed to leveraging it to the hilt, driving it into bankruptcy and collecting his golden parachute on the way out) may seem particularly far-fetched. The fact that both musical and film are based on a true story may seem the work of fantasy in a country where CEOs like Charlie are an even smaller niche than those shopping for women's footwear in men's sizes. We could use a few more Charlie Prices, willing to strap on heels and do the right thing, though.
He doesn't do it alone, though. And that's the point. The show celebrates industry, ingenuity, dreams and hard work. It's about sticking together and, as themes explored in the finale "Raise You Up/Just Be" imply, there is more power in raising each other up instead of tearing each other down for some short-term personal gain.
Fierstein returns to the well once again with the theme of what makes a man, but you can't fault a guy for so thouroughly humanizing Lola. Perhaps moreso than in either "Torchsong Trilogy" or "La Cage aux Folles," Fierstein succeeds in visually showing us something that Ru Paul has been saying for years: we're all born naked, everything after that is drag. The clothes we chose to wear do not define our worth and that goes for drag queens or dock workers.
Mitchell's choreography deserves a shout out particularly for the first-act closer "Everybody Say Yeah" in which factory worker and drag queen alike gyrate on moving convey belts.
Gregg Barnes’ costumes capture the blue collar feel of the factory workers as well as the more fantastical outfits worn by Lola and his drag queen backup singers. When the thigh length, red-sequined heels first roll off the assembly line at the end of the first act, they are more than just shoes; it is the visual equivalent of Eliza Doolittle making her debut.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Lauper’s score. Unlike other recording artists who try their hands at writing a Broadway show and never seem to understand the medium of the Broadway musical, Lauper proves she is equally adept at crafting radio-ready, hook-heavy pop and dance songs the likes we’ve never heard in a Broadway show as well as traditional Broadway ballads, duets and ensemble numbers. “Sex is in the Heel” and “Raise You Up/Just Be” are infectious pop songs with beats that will get you up and moving. “Hold Me In Your Heart” and “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” are delivered with such honesty, they might have you reaching for the tissues.
Still, a few minor things will need to be tweaked before the April Broadway opening. Charlie’s quasi-materialistic fiance Nikola is a bit underwritten and the terrific actress Celina Caravajal does her best with what she is given (which is to say, not much).
Sand’s Charlie shifts a bit too quickly from factory savior to boss from hell and his relationship with Ashford’s Lauren in the second act needs to be further developed as well.
“We're the same, you and me, Charlie boy," Lola tells Charlie at the end of the first act and with that, the show places it's well-designed heels on one of those universal truths: there is so much more that unites us rather than divides us. "Kinky Boots" heart is in the right place and its heels are on firm ground.
Watch highlights from the performance here.