Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Kinky Boots/Broadway In Chicago

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere Add comments

Stark Sands and Billy Porter/ Photo: Sean Williams

“Kinky Boots,” the new musical that opened on Wednesday night at the Bank of America Theatre, is a tryout in every sense of the word. While solidified plans have been made to transfer this decadent swirl of cotton candy to Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre in the spring, “Kinky Boots” is going through its all-important growing pains here in Chicago. And strenuous, those growing pains are.

Broadway In Chicago prides itself on the triumphant successes of previous out-of-towners like “The Producers” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” both of which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, have long runs on the Great White Way and sprout subsequent hit tours. But when those powerhouses had their sold-out world premieres in the Loop’s Theater District, the curtain went up on old souls, very mature for their age, begging for a much wider audience.

But “Kinky Boots,” a mediocre pop-sical whose story of unlikely friends and business partners exists in stark contrast to its paint-by-numbers execution, still has a lot of growing up to do. The show’s credits would indicate the makings of a boffo Broadway hit. Cyndi Lauper, in her musical-theater debut, has composed the stage-pop score, eagerly awaited by insatiably curious show geeks. And given Lauper’s affinity for upbeat ditties on the heels of teenage angst, the boot should fit effortlessly. But the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” singer sacrifices her pop sound for a show-business-as-usual Broadway sensibility, which creates each song alike and tiresomely commonplace.

And then there’s the always hysterical Harvey Fierstein. The scratchy-voiced book writer of “La Cage aux Folles” and “Newsies” has penned “Kinky Boots’” script of sassy, super-glued quips, and Jerry Mitchell (“Hairspray” and “Catch Me If You Can”) lends his formidable talents as both the director and choreographer of the world premiere. And yet, despite that supernova of eccentric personality and aesthetic flair, “Kinky Boots,” bragging a sometime-chorus of drag queens sporting Gregg Barnes’ bright and shiny costumes, is strikingly bland and unmoving in its giggly infancy.

Based on the punky 2005 British film of the same name,”Kinky Boots” first gets kicking when Charlie Price (a sweet Stark Sands, so easy to like) inherits his family’s stumbling, mismanaged shoe factory, Price & Sons, in Northampton, England—David Rockwell’s cramped, stuffy factory is the dominant scenic element. Returning home to Northampton after the death of his father, he dives headfirst into the family business while his relationship with Nicola (Celina Carvajal)—given not an ounce of meaningful development by Fierstein—is falling apart amidst his flirtation with a factory worker, Lauren (a charming, perfectly timed Annaleigh Ashford). Charlie’s financial savior comes in the unexpected form of Lola, a drag queen played by the charismatic Billy Porter, fully embracing the late Whitney Houston’s divattitude and jerky mannerism. Lola suggests the shoe factory switch its dingy focus to a rising niche market—men who love to adorn those oh, so kinky boots. And so it does.

Though the plot is cute and cuddly, the musical has some major hurdles messily hoarded in the second act. In the flighty first act, no substantive conflict is introduced outside of retrofitting the factory—the stakes of which are middling. The workers, a well-cast but dully costumed ensemble with the toiling ethic of Santa’s elves, haven’t any concern for the permanency of their jobs, and Charlie’s pestering doubts of the future are reduced to petty annoyances. But a stampede of little dramas are introduced come Act Two—a factory pseudo-strike that leads nowhere, a threat to rebuild the factory as condominiums, and a perplexing boxing match between Lola and the factory’s resident homophobe, Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman), which ends in Lola’s effective insistence that he accept everyone for who they are. Well, instantaneous acceptance is a beautiful idea, but that flyby turnaround of plot disrespects the struggles of those who’ve spent a lifetime to be appreciated only to facilitate a musical’s impulse grab at hollow feelgoodery.

No matter the dramatic coherence of “Kinky Boots,” I fully expected a sense of honest humanity to come from this creative team. Lauper is a gay icon, after all, and an outspoken advocate of gay rights. And drag is Fierstein’s bread and buttah. “La Cage’”s Albin and les Cagelles, despite the piece’s occasionally antiquated thinking, are sumptuously fleshed-out persons. A message of acceptance is undoubtedly present in “La Cage,” but, unlike in “Kinky Boots,” it’s projected through proud, unashamed spitfires who need not preach tolerance at us because they inspire it. Albin (drag name Zsa Zsa) sings “I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses.” Albin earns our respect and resounding admiration, not by hammering home a moral or reuniting with a bigoted father, but by simply existing as he is. Lauper’s songs like the generic finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be”—insanely reminiscent of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”—have the simplistic “I’m great! You’re great!” internet-age moral fiber of the teenybopper “High School Musical.” In most cases, not an adult indulgence.

“Kinky Boots,” at its best, is great fun. And my laundry list of reservations should not be seen as a vendetta against a wholesome good time, but as an appeal for a beating heart and a grounding soul in its eventual final product. As Fierstein has proven time and again, there is plentiful room for both fun and depth in an evening of theater. Though Lauper’s toe-tapping score leaves much to be desired in the areas of tunefulness and plot integration and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is cluttered with ceaseless arm flagellations, the chief suspect here is Fierstein’s set ‘em up, knock ‘em down book, more concerned with getting the laugh than building sympathetically believable characters. There is much work left to do, and these heavyweight talents have until April 4 to iron out the kinks. (Johnny Oleksinski)

At Bank of America Theatre, 18 West Monroe, (800)775-2000. Through November 4. 

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