Kinky Boots Review: Cyndi Lauper’s Broadway Songwriting Debut

Stark Sands and Billy Porter star in "Kinky Boots" on Broadway, by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper

Stark Sands and Billy Porter star in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper

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Is it a shock to say that “Kinky Boots” just isn’t kinky enough?

It could have been. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, he who began his career as a 300-pound teenage drag queen on the Lower East Side. Cyndi Lauper is making her Broadway songwriting debut, she who began as the girl with the tie-dye colored hair who just wants to have fun.

The Broadway musical they’ve put together, which has now opened at the Al Hirschfeld, tells the same story as the 2005 cult British film of the same name: A shoemaker partners with a drag queen to make footwear sturdy enough for a man but fabulous enough for a woman – kinky boots for cross-dressing professionals and enthusiasts.

The stage version delivers a couple of stand-out performances; a few touching moments; several catchy melodies presented with verve and panache in a diverse score of genuine pop tunes — one of which, “Sex Is In The Heel” is already a certified hit in the clubs — flavored by funk, disco and even a tango.

“Kinky Boots” is professionally put together, it’s entertaining…and it’s both safe and familiar.

That’s not a crime; it’s just a disappointment. To observe that the show, which takes place mostly in a small struggling industrial town in Northampton, has echoes of both “Billy Elliott” and “Once”  (in a mashup with “La Cage Aux Folles,” which Fierstein also wrote)  is to realize that there’s less here as fresh  or memorable.

Like those other musicals based on British movies, “Kinky Boots” is more or less inspired by a true story — in this case, less. Yes, shoe manufacturer Steve Pateman created the Divine Footwear line in order to save W J Brooks Ltd, the Northampton shoe-manufacturing firm that had been in his family for a century. But, look at the local news accounts, and you’ll see no mention of his partnering with a drag queen. There is no evidence he ever even met one. He was responding to a request from a “fetish shoe shop” in Folkstone for women’s shoes in men’s sizes.  And – is this worse? – it didn’t save the company, which shut down a few years later (before the film was made.)

So Lola appears to be a wholly invented character — not just a self-invented one. This is fine by me, since Billy Porter’s performance  as Lola is one of the two best things about “Kinky Boots”

Born Simon, trained by his washed-up professional boxer father for a career in the ring, Lola early on took a liking to women’s clothes. We see him getting mugged in a London street outside the club where he performs his drag act.

Charlie (Stark Sands), who just happens to be walking by, comes to the rescue. He had moved to London on the insistence of his girlfriend Nicola (Celina Carvajal) who pushed him to leave Northampton and the shoe manufacturing firm, here called Price and Son, run by his father. But his father died shortly afterwards, and Charlie was forced to move back and take over the business. He is back in London only to talk to a retailer, in hopes of convincing him to buy a huge stock of unsold shoes and help the ailing firm.

Lola takes off his heavy boot to attack his attackers, hitting Charlie instead by accident. She brings him into her dressing room to look after him, and, when he awakes, she happens to complain about the expensive but cheaply-made shoes she has to wear, which keep on breaking. The rest is….well, not history, but the show.

Click on any photo to see enlarged in a slide show

Much of “Kinky Boots” seems in search of a conflict to provide drama. So there is a thug-like prejudiced factory worker Don (the excellent Daniel Stewart Sherman) who makes life uncomfortable for Lola, when, reverting temporarily to Simon, he starts working at the factory as a designer. This culminates in a strangely choreographed slow-motion boxing match that is all manner of mistake. There is Charlie’s conflict with Nicola, especially when she hatches a plan to sell the factory and turn it into condominiums. There is the interaction between Charlie and Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), a factory worker who pines for Charlie. And there is the dynamic between Charlie and Lola. As the pressure mounts in Act II to produce the shoes and make an impression at the Milan shoe fashion show, Charlie turns testy, nasty, even bigoted towards Simon, insulting him for being less than a man — an abrupt turnaround from his accepting attitude in the first act. Both Charlie and Lola also have unresolved conflicts with their fathers, something that eventually serves to bond them, and that Fierstein (who also wrote the book for “Newsies” with its mostly fatherless characters) makes one of the central themes of the show, along with tolerance and acceptance and the true meaning of manhood. Both the conflicts and the themes feel as manufactured as the footwear, but without the same attention to good craftmanship.
It doesn’t help that Stark Sands is such a bland presence compared to his role in “American Idiot” that I literally checked the Playbill for the little slip of paper that would tell me that the role was being played by his more clean-cut understudy. There is something a little too unthreatening about this show.

The late film critic Roger Ebert found a similar problem in the film : “The movie is in the naughty-but-nice British tradition in which characters walk on the wild side but never seem to do anything else there.”

Here at least they don’t just walk; they dance. Director-choreography Jerry Mitchell, who also staged the over-the-top drag extravaganza “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (and 18 other Broadway musicals), here goes for relatively understated, saving the lavish production numbers for the first and second act finales, employing all 32 cast members. He oddly inserts the half-dozen “Angels” — Lola’s backup drag singers and dancers — into the proceedings whenever he feels like it, even when it makes no sense to the plot. (Why would Simon be so careful to dress as a man at the factory, and then bring along his flamboyantly cross-dressing pals to strut on the assembly line?)

I said that Billy Porter was one of the two best things about “Kinky Boots.” The other is the decision by Cyndi Lauper to accept Harvey Fierstein’s invitation to write the songs for the show.The range of styles here, soaring ballads like “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” disco anthems like “Raise You Up/Just Be,” clever, comic ensemble pieces like “The Most Beautiful Thing In The World” (in which separate characters are each talking about shoes), and the catchy rocking “Everybody Say Yeah,” show a pop singer who seems to understand the specific demands of musical theater.  If “Kinky Boots” might not go the distance, Cyndi Lauper and Broadway are a good fit.

Kinky Boots

At the Al Hirschfeld

Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by John Shivers, musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus.
Cast: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford, Celina Carvajal, Daniel Sherman, Marcus Neville, Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Andy Kelso, Tory Ross, Jennifer Perry, Josh Caggiano, Aaron Bantum, Adinah Alexander, Eric Anderson, Eugene Barry-Hill, Stephen Berger, Caroline Bowman, Sandra DeNise, Eric Leviton, Ellyn Marie Marsh, John Jeffrey Martin, Nathan Peck, Robert Pendilla, Lucia Spina, Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Marquise Neal, Clifton Oliver

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.

Tickets: $57.00 – $137.00

Buy tickets at Broadway Guide

About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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