Theater Review: Kinky Boots

I first saw Kinky Boots as part of a four show weekend in NYC back in January. At the time, I was very curious to compare it to Matilda, which I also saw during that trip. These two shows were the top contenders for the Best Musical Tony Award that season, and in what was seen as an upset to many, Kinky Boots came out on top. After seeing both shows, I was a bit surprised to find that I agreed. I will admit I was biased going in: the movie Matilda is a childhood favorite of mine, and I went in with very high expectations. Meanwhile, I knew very little of the plot of Kinky Boots (which is based on a 2005 based-on-a-true-story film of the same name), but was mostly excited to see it for Stark Sands, who originated the role of Charlie and whom I was a fan of from American Idiot.

Take 1: NYC, January 2014.
Take 1: NYC, January 2014.

I have now seen Kinky Boots twice and Matilda only once, so I feel it’s possible my opinions will change in the future, but the reason I found Kinky to be more deserving of the Tony is because it is a more cohesive overall show. I do think that the highs of Matilda, for example, the heart-wrenching and stunningly staged “When I Grow Up”, far surpassed anything in Kinky or, frankly, anything in any of the shows I saw that trip. But a few amazing numbers do not a Best Musical make, and Matilda suffered from serious pacing problems and a misguided subplot featuring a story about an acrobat and escape artist that I found took up far too much time and distracted from what was great about the core story. I think that ultimately the creative team behind Matilda simply tried to do too much with it. While I have not seen the movie Kinky Boots is based on, it is very much a solid, classically structured musical. Is it brilliantly innovative or groundbreaking? No, not really. The score is very strong, and there are a couple of songs I revisit regularly, but it is not as a whole remarkable. Everything about it, however, is just plain solid and fun. It has a great message about acceptance that it delivers in a way that is simultaneously flashy and full of heart.

Take 2: LA, November 2014.
Take 2: LA, November 2014.

Last weekend I revisited Kinky Boots during the national tour’s stop at the Pantages in LA. The highlight of the touring cast was definitely Kyle Taylor Parker, who played Lola (the role Billy Porter won a well-deserved Tony for in 2013). Mr. Parker took full command of the stage from the moment he stepped onto it, exuding star quality. Steven Booth was very charming as Charlie, and Lindsay Nicole Chambers was hilarious as Lauren, whose big Act 1 number “The History of Wrong Guys” is one of my personal favorite songs from the show. Throughout I was impressed by just how much the LA audience was eating the show up. LA audiences are usually quite a different animal from NY audiences, but it was clear that everyone was really loving it. There was even a mid-song round of applause for a shoe. What other musical can offer that?

The story of Kinky Boots is about a young man, Charlie, who inherits his family’s British shoe factory when his father suddenly passes away. He quickly learns the factory is about to go under, but a chance meeting with drag queen Lola inspires him to create shoes for a niche market, a line of “kinky boots” for drag queens, in a last ditch effort to save the family business. Cyndi Lauper wrote the score, and also became the first woman to win the Tony for Best Original Score alone (meaning, without a male writing partner). She did a fantastic job, and few songs are forgettable. The show really shines when Lauper’s score combines with Jerry Mitchell’s (Legally Blonde, Hairspray) upbeat choreography. The act one finale, “Everybody Say Yeah”, features really fun dance moves involving a conveyor belt at the factory. “Sex Is In the Heel” and the finale “Raise You Up” are two more rousing anthems that really get the audience going. The emotional side comes out in Charlie’s beautiful 11 o’clock number, “Soul of a Man,” and in Lola’s showstoppers “Not My Father’s Son” and “Hold Me In Your Heart.”

I find that the show’s weaknesses come mostly in the book, which is written by Harvey Fierstein. The love triangle of Charlie, his stuck-up fiance Nicola, and endearingly goofy factory worker Lauren is not quite balanced. Obviously it is easy to root for Charlie and Lauren when Nicola is portrayed only as nagging and unlikable. Nicola doesn’t even get a song, and I personally would have liked to hear from her. Also, while the stakes for Charlie are immediately clear because he needs to save the factory, it is unclear at first why Lola is so invested in helping this man she barely knows design a line of shoes. In the end, though, the moving message of acceptance, both of yourself and of others, makes up for many of the weaker aspects of the show. Also, there is an encore/sing-along/dance party during the curtain call. I don’t know about you, but I’m helpless to resist one of those.

Kinky Boots will be at the Pantages through November 30th before the tour moves on to other cities across the US. Additionally, the show is still running strong at the Al Hirschfeld Theater in New York. For more information and tickets, visit http://kinkybootsthemusical.com/.


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