‘Kinky Boots’ starring Stark Sands and Billy Porter is ready to strut on Broadway

Stark Sands and Billy Porter

Stark Sands and Billy Porter

Kinky Boots is a fun and funky mix of many things: English shoemaking, drag culture, what it means to be a man and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few.

The story begins with a struggling factory in Northampton named Price & Son that makes the most beautiful things in the world: men’s shoes. But despite their high quality, the company is losing all of its customers to cheap foreign imports. In comes a drag queen seeking a unique product: high-heeled boots that can support a man. A so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea is born and a ridiculously fun musical begins.

At its heart is the unlikely partnership between the down-on-his-luck cobbler Charlie Price (Stark SandsAmerican Idiot, Journey’s End) and the fabulous drag queen Lola (Billy PorterMiss Saigon, Grease). Both men hail from northern, industrial England, evoked in the beautiful steel, red-brick and paned-glass set design by David Rockwell. Life revolves around the factories and sons are expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. For Charlie, this means becoming a shoemaker. For Lola, who used to be Simon, this means training as a professional boxer. Neither son has the passion to do so. Charlie flees to London with his fiancée Nicola (Celina CarvajalTarzan, Dracula) to pursue a corporate career while Simon puts on high-heels, becomes Lola and entertains nightly at a London club.

When Charlie is called home by his father’s death (literally: a cellphone goes off the second he steps into his new London flat) he is confronted by the terrible news that without any customers he must shut down the factory. Back in London he meets Lola and her Angels, who have an interesting problem: their sequined heels, designed for women, cannot support the weight of a man. Lola tells Charlie that there is a whole community of drag queens in need of tougher heels and Charlie hits on the idea that will save his company. He hires Lola to design the shoes and this new plan inspires the first really rousing number, “Step One,” in which Sands dances around his factory floor making burgundy boots.

Of course, convincing the Northampton locals to work for a drag designer making women’s shoes for men is bound to ruffle a few feather boas. Tough-guy Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman, Desire Under the Elms, The Full Monty) gruffly leads the opposition to Lola’s high-heeled designs. The Don-Lola challenge results in an imaginatively staged boxing match and a rather heartwarming sub-plot about accepting someone for who they are (which doesn’t turn out so tritely as you might think). But Lola’s acceptance doesn’t come easily and the scene where Charlie comforts Lola is especially moving. Lola shows up to work dressed as a man, only to be stripped of the vivacious, saucy attitude that got her through every other day. Porter’s naked vulnerability in “I’m Not My Father’s Son” is all the more honest and interesting dressed in men’s power clothes.

When the inevitable act-two reversal occurs Charlie is left on his own with a Milanese fashion show just hours away and no one to make or model the boots. But the plucky factory workers rally when Don comes to the rescue and things are finally looking bright again, especially under the runway lights reflected in buckets-worth of sequins during the show’s foot-stomping finale, “Raise You Up.”

Cyndi Lauper’s music for her debut musical is right at home among the drag queen chorus (who practically steal the show) and while not especially memorable her songs hit all the right notes. Most admirable is each actor gets their own chance to shine, whether it’s Porter’s “Sex is in the Heel” (among others), Sand’s rock-ballad “The Soul of a Man” or Annaleigh Ashford’s (Wicked, Legally Blonde) star-turn as Lauren, Charlie’s local love interest (we all knew Nicola wasn’t the one). Ashford channels Lauper’s goofy and catchy style in her solo, “The History of Wrong Guys.” The ensemble is appropriately fabulous in Gregg Barnes delectable costumes and the entire company, under the direction of Jerry Mitchell, sings and dances like a well-oiled machine. Speaking of, the first act closing number, “Everybody Say Yeah,” is an especially entertaining example of conveyor-belt coordination. Think OK Go in drag on a Broadway stage. It’s fun.

And that, finally, seems to be the point of Kinky Boots. It is a really fun night out. While it touches on some very human struggles between fathers and sons, work and passion, and themes of acceptance, the show wears its heart on its sleeve. The book, written by Harvey Fierstein, even gets preachy in the second act. Thankfully the plot finds places to ground its message, but unlike Lola’s ultra-sturdy boots, the message “be yourself” can wear a little thin. So can the plot when it merely serves to rush to the next musical number, as in the hurried exposition at the top of the show. Additionally, cellphones do not fare well in this musical. Charlie’s show-clinching apology to Lola is truly heartfelt but delivered into a cellphone the words float aimlessly into the air.

The show is little more than the extremely fun sum of its parts, but with a shiny new Cyndi Lauper musical that is perfectly okay. The cast is warm-hearted and hard-working and the production is a feast for the eyes and ears. Given its tried and true combination of drag queens and Broadway style, Kinky Boots looks ready to strut.

Kinky Boots is playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Directed by Jerry Mitchell, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, starring Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford, Celina Carvajal, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Marcus Neville & company.

The Cast of 'Kinky Boots'

The Cast of ‘Kinky Boots’

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4 Responses

  1. Great review Alan! It was awesome meeting you that night too.

  2. Thanks, Chris! It’s nice to know that they’re appreciated. I hope you get to keep up with the site a little bit, and that you keep enjoying what you read.

  3. NIce job, Alan. Ditto the several other of your reviews I read. Jaunty and well stated. You convey a great sense of fun!

  4. Alternate titles I just thought of: Charlie and the Shoe Factory, Drag Queens Just Wanna Have Fun, and, These Boots Are Made for Gawking. The shoes are seriously amazing.