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Review: 'Kinky Boots' is unsteady in its Broadway walk

The musical about a drag queen and a shoe factory owner has songs by theater newcomer Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, who makes rookie mistakes.

April 04, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Stark Sands, Billy Porter, and Annaleigh Ashford, center, in the Broadway production of "Kinky Boots."
Stark Sands, Billy Porter, and Annaleigh Ashford, center, in the Broadway… (Matthew Murphy )

NEW YORK — Let the record show that on April 4, 2013, the night that "Kinky Boots" opened on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, drag officially became a commodity of the tourist masses.

Female impersonation has long had mainstream appeal, but now even the campier tradition has been co-opted.

"La Cage Aux Folles" proved that a man in a dress belting "I Am What I Am" could move straight theatergoers to tears. "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" showed that sparkly attired male disco divas traveling the outback on a bus could bring in audiences by the busload.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

Now "Kinky Boots," a musical collaboration between Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper based on the 2005 movie about a failing shoe factory that gets rescued by a savvy drag queen, has arrived fresh off the assembly line, hoping to make a bundle with its generic sequins and bland uplift.

Some have said that it takes a big-name star to move a show to Broadway these days. There's an alternative route, however, and all that's required is a little brawny décolletage.

This slavering-to-please production, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell and featuring Lauper's recycled blend of pop and funk, is a tall, overstuffed wedding cake crammed with so much sugary filling that even those with an insatiable sweet tooth might prefer a slice of cantaloupe instead.

By turns entertaining and stultifying, "Kinky Boots," which had a tryout production last year in Chicago but could still use another round of tinkering, takes too much time to hit its stride. Fierstein's book cumbersomely sets up the situation of Charlie (Stark Sands), the uncertain young man with a good heart who inherits his family's shoe factory in the English Midlands just as the business is teetering on collapse.

Workers at Price & Son are facing the ax and for Charlie generations of family history — symbolized by functional, style-deprived shoes — may be coming to a crashing end. But this crisis is weighed down by bulky background material and drab expositional numbers.

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The show begins, in an almost Dickensian fashion, with a snapshot of Charlie's childhood and proceeds to fill us in on his romantic relationship with the superficial Nicola (Celina Carvajal), a character who fascinates us about as little as she seems to fascinate him.

Lauren (the refreshing Annaleigh Ashford), a factory worker smitten with Charlie, is set up as the worthier love interest in a story that has a severe (we're talking anaphylactic-shock level) allergy to subtlety. She helps Charlie come up with the ingenious solution of manufacturing boots for drag queens, explaining, "All the sods who survived went out looking for an underserved niche market and aimed to fill the void." (Working class to the core, Lauren sometimes sounds like a marketing MBA, though passion does strange things to people.)

"Kinky Boots" doesn't find its voice till Lola (Billy Porter) — the cross-dressing spitfire who hurtles into Charlie's life most unexpectedly — finds hers. This occurs during the extravagant Act 1 number "Sex Is in the Heel," which wrests the audience from its gentle slumber and momentarily makes good on the far-fetched promise of a musical fetishizing fabulous footwear.

Here Lola, backed by her drag posse, instructs Charlie on how to design a shoe for cross-dressing men who like their heels high and skyscraper-strong: "Pump it up / Till it's ostentatious / Funk it up / Till it feels contagious."

Much of the music that Lauper, that lovable '80s pied piper of oddballs (the Lady Gaga of her day), has composed for the show has a retro pop feel. It's the kind of sound that seems to pair naturally with early music videos from MTV's toddler days.

Lauper's lyrics have moments of deep "True Colors" sensitivity, as in Lola's soul-searching ballad, "I'm Not My Father's Son," with its lines of somber retrospection: "Look at me powerless / And holding my breath / Trying hard to repress / What scared him to death."

The score's patchwork quality, however, never establishes a compositional through line. "Kinky Boots" lacks the natural tumbling flow of a musical — or even a concept album for that matter. Lauper's greenhorn status is nowhere more evident than in the show's assemblage of mix-and-match tunes.

The faults in Fierstein's book can't similarly be chalked up to inexperience. He's as decorated a dramatist (his play "Torch Song Trilogy" and his book for "La Cage Aux Folles" both won Tonys) as he is an adorably froggy-voiced performer. But he makes novice mistakes in "Kinky Boots," which is both too faithful to the film (written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth) and too full of homilies on what it means to be a man and the value of self-acceptance.

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