Friday, April 5, 2013

Drag Queens Just Want to Have Fun

Review:  Kinky Boots
Whatever Lola (Billy Porter, right) wants, Lola gets.

When pop musicians decide to write a Broadway musical, they must find a way to marry the catchy melodies and repeated choruses that spell success on the radio with the more story-driven nature of modern musical theatre.  Sometimes they fail miserably, as evidenced by the ghastly, incomprehensible score Bono and the Edge created for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.  But sometimes, as in the Cyndi Lauper-scored new musical Kinky Boots, they manage to use their pop prowess to create infinitely hummable tunes that still propel the plot forward.  Kinky Boots, which also features a book by Harvey Fierstein and direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, is not a perfect musical, but it is a delightful first try by the eighties icon that is one of the most giddily entertaining new musicals of the past several seasons.

Based on the motion picture of the same name, Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price, who inherits his father’s struggling shoe factory after the old man’s untimely death.  Stuck with a responsibility he never asked for and an entire factory’s worth of friends facing unemployment, Charlie is at the end of his rope until a chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola.  As Lola explains, finding fittingly fabulous shoes in men’s sizes can be quite the tricky feat, and Charlie realizes that creating footwear for this niche market could be his last hope of saving the factory from financial ruin.

Lauper’s signature sound adapts surprisingly well to the musical theatre form, resulting in an energetic pop score that fleshes out the story and characters through a steady stream of great melodic hooks.  The repetitive choruses occasionally betray Lauper’s pop roots, but overall the songs strike a nice balance between feeling comfortingly familiar and excitingly fresh. 

In between all the ear candy, Fierstein’s often hilarious book balances clever one-liners with an emotional honesty that makes Charlie, Lola, and their collection of quirky friends feel like genuine people rather than character archetypes.  The writer has previously explored the same themes of acceptance and defied expectations in his previous drag extravaganza La Cage aux Folles, but Kinky Boots is so charmingly executed that the repetition hardly matters.  Fierstein displays a consistent gift for story structure and characterization that is all too rare in today’s musicals, and Boots is another strong addition to his sterling resume.

Director/choreographer Mitchell does well by the material, although his work here lacks the inventiveness and wit of his surprisingly strong staging for Legally Blonde.  The biggest problem is that while full of pep and vigor, the score is surprisingly short on full-blown production numbers, giving Mitchell relatively few opportunities to make full use of his choreographic gifts.  This is in no way meant to imply the other songs are anything less than superb, but they don’t quite play to the director’s strengths.  On the positive side, the few production numbers that are present are an obscene amount of fun, particularly the Act I finale “Everybody Say Yeah.”

The talented writers are aided by an equally talented cast, and while there are many standouts, the heart and soul of Kinky Boots is the divinely divaliscious Billy Porter as Lola.  Kicking the show into high gear with his first appearance, Porter possesses a magnetic stage presence that fills the Al Hirschfeld to the bursting point.  His Lola embodies the combination of camp and sincerity that defines Kinky Boots as a whole, and if anything Porter could probably go slightly more over-the-top without harming the show’s entertainment quotient.  Late in the show Charlie describes the “great gaping gap” Lola leaves behind when she exits a room, and so it is whenever Porter leaves the stage; thankfully, he always reappears quickly, and in increasingly fantastic ensembles to boot.

Stark Sands graduates to leading man status with aplomb, imbuing Charlie with an approachable Everyman quality while preserving the character’s individuality.  Sands’ two big solos don’t quite land the way you’d like them to, but the golden-voiced performer acts the hell out of his book scenes and maintains a refreshing level of credibility throughout.  Annaleigh Ashford brings a delightful level of camp to her relatively minor role of Lauren, and her “The History of Wrong Guys” is the most outright hilarious song in the show.  And while the entire ensemble deserves mention, special kudos must be given to the six drag Angels who provide frequently outrageous background business without ever upstaging queen bee Lola.

Visually, the show strikes the perfect balance between the working class realities of its industrial setting and the kitschy fantasy world of Lola and her Angels.  David Rockwell’s unassuming but surprisingly versatile factory set seamlessly reconfigures itself into a tiny flat, Lola’s underground club, and even a boxing ring (an unexpected second act diversion which the Angels turn into a magnificently campy highlight).  Costumer Gregg Barnes deserves a Tony nomination for the Angels’ finale outfits alone, but this gifted designer is equally at home dressing the blue-collar factory workers and the bourgeois members of Milan’s fashion elite.  And the titular boots look as gloriously gaudy as you could possibly hope, adding immensely to the show’s already sizable appeal.

Coming off a decidedly lackluster fall for new musicals, Kinky Boots feels like a godsend.  It is an unabashedly entertaining show filled to the brim with charm and good humor, and sports an always relevant message about accepting yourself and others for who they are.  The entire cast is filled with talented performers using all their varied gifts to entertain, with Billy Porter’s Lola emerging as one of the most memorable characters to sashay across the Broadway stage in several seasons.  Those searching for an evening of high art will be disappointed, but they were never the target audience of this show to begin with.  The rest of us can – and should – revel in Kinky Boots’ delightfully daffy spell.

PS - This is my 100th post!  Thank you everyone for reading.  Here's to the next 100 :-)

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