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Review: Wayne Brady Leads Spectacular KINKY BOOTS at the Hollywood Bowl

Joyful, sassy, and rousingly entertaining, the Tony Award winner is a great fit for the iconic venue's big annual summer musical

Like many things in this world, COVID put a stop to the Hollywood Bowl's highly-anticipated annual big summer musical, its once-a-year celebrity-filled summer productions that casts big names in lead musical theater roles for a brief three-show weekend.

Over the years, these big productions of popular (mostly older) Broadway shows have produced surprise casting finds that either reveal a famous celeb's incredible, previously untapped musical theater skills, or, like in some other cases, we have come to the conclusion that the stunt casting of this famous person or that famous person offers definitive proof that they should just stick to their non-stage musical day jobs.

Review: Wayne Brady Leads Spectacular KINKY BOOTS at the Hollywood Bowl
Jake Shears, Kelly Marie Tran

In a bit of perfect timing, the musical that the Hollywood Bowl has selected for its first dip back doing their annual summer showtunes showcase is KINKY BOOTS - THE MUSICAL---the highly-enjoyable Tony Award-winning 2013 musical that features memorable, catchy music from pop star Cyndi Lauper and a deliciously cheeky book by Harvey Fierstein that's based on the 2005 British indie movie written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth.

With pride month just recently concluding amidst an increasingly uneasy uptick in anti-LGBTQIA+ legislations across the country, the opportunity to provide the Bowl's audience with a fun, joyful show that has a very pro-queer, "be who you wanna be" message is certainly a welcome experience, especially now.

The resulting new production---helmed and choreographed again by Jerry Mitchell and musically directed by Stephen Oremus---is a genuine cheer-worthy triumph, projecting an impressive presentation that promotes a powerful, positive lesson in accepting other people's differences set to an earworm soundtrack. And also, to put it quite simply, the show is just really, really entertaining---a perfect fit for this world-famous venue.

Interestingly, unlike past years' shows, this year's return to the annual summer musical took less risks when it comes to stunt casting, which turned out to be a good thing.

For its two leads, the Hollywood Bowl production's team chose to go with two actors that, yes, are more well-known for their work outside of musical theater, but yet have also both played their respective roles in KINKY BOOTS before in the Broadway production.

Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears returns to the role of Charlie Price, a young man whose life in London is upended after his father passes away and leaves him the family business back in their small hometown of Northhampton: Price and Sons, an eroding old shoe factory that specializes in practical men's work shoes. Meanwhile, Emmy-winning Improv King Wayne Brady returns to the role of Lola (aka Simon), a big-city drag queen who has a chance encounter with Charlie that eventually blossoms into a factory-saving business partnership after Charlie convinces him to design a brand new line of "Kinky Boots" to serve an untapped niche market: men who like to wear women's shoes that are strong enough to withstand the weight of a man."

Review: Wayne Brady Leads Spectacular KINKY BOOTS at the Hollywood Bowl
Wayne Brady

As Lola, Brady is absolutely perfect for the role, easily going from brassy one minute, to touchingly vulnerable the next, whenever a scene requires him to be. His rendition of Lola's heartbreaking ballad "I'm Not My Father's Son" is just stunning, moving many (including me) to tears. As seen in his many TV appearances over his long career, Brady has always proven that he is a genuine quadruple-threat performer---and it shows. For his part, Shears proves he has a distinctive mettle for dramatic acting, providing some memorable scene work throughout the show, even as he seems to be overwhelmed by the demands of Lauper's belt-heavy score at times.

But the most pleasant, smile-inducing surprise of this production of KINKY BOOTS has to be Kelly Marie Tran who plays Lauren, a factory worker who has a massive crush on Charlie despite him having a girlfriend. Tran---whose recent work includes starring in the final two films of the Star Wars sequel trilogy and providing the voice of the first Southeast Asian Disney princess in Raya and the Last Dragon---is a superb comic and an even better musical theater actress, with a great command of a working-class British accent. Her rendition of Lauren's big solo "History of Wrong Guys" is a memorable highlight, and stands as evidence for Broadway producers to start casting her in a lead role, stat.

Additional notable cast members include Dancing with the Stars' Mark Ballas who plays Harry (and is also the production's Understudy for Charlie, a role he has also played in the Broadway production); Too Close For Comfort's Jim J. Bullock who plays George, the shoe factory foreman (a role he played for two years in the US National Tour); The Goldbergs star Hayley Orrantia, who makes her musical theater debut as Nicola, Charlie's bougie girlfriend blessed with a fierce singing voice; and original Tracy Turnblad herself, HAIRSPRAY's Marissa Jared Winokur as pro-Lola factory worker Pat. Two cast members from the original Broadway cast, Jennifer Perry and Daniel Stewart Sherman make memorable returns as Trish and Don, respectively.

Kudos, too, to the show's lovely and uber-flexible "Angels" who often stole the show with every appearance: Eric Stanton Betts, Jake Dupree, Yurel Echezarreta, Tyler Keller, Tommy Martinez, Juan Torres-Falcón, Matthew Varvar, and Ernest Terrelle Williams. And a special shout-out to the show's two youngest actors: Walter Russell III and Patrick Scott McDermott who play young Lola and Charlie, respectively. These two young actors displayed impressive singing voices for such a young age.

Only minor visual changes were implemented to make KINKY BOOTS work for the larger Hollywood Bowl stage. With such a wider front expanse, the band had to be split to opposite ends of the stage which seems like a workable compromise. The factory sign normally seen atop the exterior of the Price and Sons building now serves as the non-moving backdrop of the interior of the factory. The set---designed by David Rockwell---only truly changes when the Bowl's turntable is used to reveal, first, the nursing home that serves as a venue for Lola's second act 11 o'clock number, and finally the Milan Fashion show set where the show's rousing big finalé occurs. The rings of the stage shell even shine with different colors of the rainbow at various moments of the show, adding a magical touch to everything. Sound-wise, the overall sound mix of the show sounds great, even with a few opening night microphone issues and some very peculiar-sounding, inconsistent attempts at British accents.

Review: Wayne Brady Leads Spectacular KINKY BOOTS at the Hollywood Bowl
The Cast of KINKY BOOTS at the Hollywood Bowl

One slight show alteration that had me a bit confused, though, was the show's change to one of the show's signature lines: Lola's cheeky salutation to the audience which says something to the effect of "...[hello], Ladies, Gentlemen, and those of you have yet to make up your mind..." was slightly changed, no doubt motivated by an aim not to offend anyone who may not fit in such a blatantly binary old-school way of thinking. Such a move signals that a show willing to make such changes is an example of progress going right.

It has been a few years since I've seen a full live production of KINKY BOOTS on stage and returning to the show here in a grandiose, top-notch production at the Hollywood Bowl reminded me again just how funny, witty, and deeply touching the show is. A crowd-pleaser with a progressive slant featuring likable characters---hard to believe this is all based on an actual true story! Maybe there's hope for humanity yet!

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photographs taken by Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

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Performances of KINKY BOOTS, featuring book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, musical direction by Stephen Oremus, and choreography and direction by Jerry Mitchell continue at the Hollywood Bowl for two additional performances on Saturday, July 9 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, July 10 (at 7:30 pm). Visit HollywoodBowl.com for information or to purchase tickets.



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