Kinky Boots & Pretencion: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque

by Michael Dale

A musical theatre rookie named Harvey Fierstein once made history with seasoned vets Jerry Herman and Arthur Laurents creating Broadway’s first musical that offered a leading gay couple in a serious long-term romantic relationship.  Though La Cage aux Folles remains a fairly standard by-the-numbers musical, it seemed revolutionary at its time for telling a progressive tale of gay acceptance as a by-the-numbers musical.

Thirty years and a few bookwriting stints later, Fierstein now teams up with another seasoned musical theatre vet, Jerry Mitchell, and rookie Cyndi Lauper for a by-the-numbers musical that seems, to the credit of society’s growing open-mindedness, by-the-numbers.  Kinky Boots is a sweet, fun and flashy enterprise that showcases the sizzling talents of Billy Porter in his first Broadway starring role, but underneath the glitz there’s some heartfelt exploration of a topic La Cage didn’t quite get to; the acceptance of another’s lifestyle when it goes beyond the privacy of their closed door and becomes a visual part of your everyday life.

Based on the 2005 British film, the main, albeit far less showy character, is played by Stark Sands, who pretty much heads the short list of people capable of going from a Tony-nominated performance in a 1928 British war drama to starring in a Green Day musical.  As Charlie Price, Sands’ impressive dramatic chops are rarely tested, playing the nice guy at the center of a story dominated by more interesting characters until he’s alone on stage for a dramatic 10:45 number, which is shortly followed by Porter’s 11 o’clocker.

Northhampton-born Charlie has no interest running the family shoe manufacturing business but nevertheless takes on the task after his father’s passing, mostly out of concern for the employees he’ll have to let go if he can’t turn the skidding sales around.  A chance meeting with London drag performer Lola (Porter) – who, unlike La Cage’s Albin, dresses in feminine attire off stage as well – leads him to the discovery that the fabulous footwear worn by male cross-dressers is rarely made sturdy enough to support their bodies.  Hence, a partnership is born, with Lola designing the title apparel (realized with showbiz flair by costume designer Gregg Barnes) which Charlie races to have ready for a big upcoming show in Milan.

Away from her safer London environs, Lola encounters the type of close-mindedness you might expect when she arrives at the factory, especially from a burley fellow (Daniel Stewart Sherman) who, perhaps feeling his own masculinity is compromised by this new presence in his workplace, challenges her to a boxing match, not knowing she’s a professionally trained pugilist.  But the twist to this situation is that Lola is only scorned for her gender identity and not for whatever one may assume to be her sexual orientation.  Fierstein himself has been quoted as saying that the character is straight, reinforcing a scripted line where Lola assures Charlie that the potential customer base for his boots is much larger than what he would expect.  The eventually blow-up that nearly dissolves their association occurs when Charlie begins to fear that Lola’s appearance may make him look foolish in front of his industry colleagues.  Sexual orientation is never expressed as an issue.

Porter (who for the record, has been quoted as saying that his character is gay) makes Lola a lusciously playful icon of flamboyant elegance who, like Sampson shorn of his locks, loses his emotional strength when dressed in traditional male attire.  His powerful vocals feast on Lauper’s celebratory pop anthems (“Sex Is In The Heel”) and more tender reflections (“I’m Not My Father’s Son”), but his musicality seamlessly extends into the dialogue, granting captivating comic nuance to proclamations like, “You’re going to have to start manufacturing sex. Two-and-a-half feet of irresistible tubular sex.”

Lauper’s best theatre song is a character-driven comic soliloquy, “The History of Wrong Guys,” delivered with sparkling timing and pathos by Annaleigh Ashford, perfectly delightful as the spunky employee who shyly hides her crush on the boss.

Peppy dance club style ensemble numbers like the first act closer, “Everybody Say Yeah,” give director/choreographer Mitchell a chance to stage the kind of high-energy kinetic expressions of joy he’s known for, especially when the working rhythms of the factory blend with the showgirl glam of Lola’s singing, dancing and emergency shoe modeling Angels (Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton and Joey Taranto).

Kinky Boots will not be another history-making musical, as its message about social change reflects the growing societal norm far more than La Cage did thirty years ago, but the talents of Fierstein, Lauper and Mitchell complement each other so well that a simple evening of solid, professional musical theatre is elevated into a rousing, and even tear-jerking, kick-ass time.

Photos by Matthew Murphy: Top: Billy Porter; Bottom: Annaleigh Ashford and Stark Sands.

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With the lovely ladies and dashing gents who display their physical charms being the focus of New York’s current burlesque scene, it’s easy to forget that the art form sprouted from roots of lowbrow ridicule of serious highbrow culture, so it’s rather refreshing to see Pinchbottom’s new burlesque showcase, Pretençión: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque, spoof the spectacles presented by the current occupants of the Citi Field parking lot.

Written and co-directed (with Jeremy X. Halpern) by the princely Burlesque Mayor of New York, Jonny Porkpie (who I understand is running for the real thing this year), the inspired silliness eschews contortionists and trapeze artists for a top-shelf collection of burly-q entertainers merrily romping through their tantalizing antics.

Like most Cirque du Soleil shows there’s a plot and like most Cirque du Soleil shows it’s rather vague and really doesn’t matter.  But that’s the point.  The characters involved, the routines they perform and the styles they wear represent a combination of Porkpie’s creation, the work of various designers and the stage personas and performances the cast members are already known for in the burlesque circuit.

The elegant strip-teaser Tansy, decked out in a nutty Folies Bergere-inspired gown and wig by Machine Dazzle, slaps on a thick Parisian accent and plays a ringmistress who mourns for the loss of her burlesque show’s pretençión.  (“When we show our boobs, we do so without irony!”)  She’s especially upset for her Pagliacci-like clown, Tiggo’s loss of pomposity.  Tiggo is played by boylesque star Tigger!, who spends most of the evening nearly nude, making maniacal split-second conversions from nymphomania to reclusiveness and back again.

Porkpie himself, as an erudite magician who eventually finds an excuse to take off his clothes, offers to lead them to the one person who can help; The Dramaturg, who resides in The Land of – you guessed it – Pretençión.

Helping to guide them is a magical Fairy, gleefully played in Billie Burke style by jazz/blues singer Broadway Brassy, whose terrific vocals are, alas, underutilized.  Coming along for the ride is Mr. Showbiz Himself, Mr. Murray Hill, dishing out the snazzy wisecracks.

Each performance also includes featured appearances by a handful of guest burlesque artists, whose routines are somehow or another squeezed into the narrative.  A mention of the creature that guards Summit of Cirque was a cue for Jo “Boobs” Weldon to do her enticing Godzilla routine.  (She’s assisted by Ivory Fox and Lilly Hayes, who also serve as silent arty types.)  The evening I attended, the lineup also included popular favorites Angie Pontani, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz (who doubles as an annoying mime) and Lux La Croix.  Other guests who may pop in include Fancy Chance, Little Brooklyn, Mat “Sealboy” Fraser and Trixie Little & The Evil Hate Monkey.

Pretençión frequently calls to mind the glorious ridiculousness of Charles Ludlam, with its stylish overacting and winking tackiness.  And with the revolving cast and freewheeling atmosphere, it’s safe to say you’ll never know exactly what to expect.

Photos by Allen Lee:  Top: Tansy and Jonny Porkpie; Bottom: Tigger! and Broadway Brassy.

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After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.