Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Kinky Boots is the first of several newer musicals coming to the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati for the first time within the few months of 2016, and this show has the best pedigree of the lot. Still playing on Broadway, Kinky Boots uses plenty of flair and heart to tell an old fashioned story with a modern twist. It isn't a perfect show, but the tour's talented cast and high energy glitz will leave most audiences satisfied and entertained.
Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 British movie of the same name and tells the story of Charlie, who inherits his father's struggling shoe factory. After Charlie's chance meeting with local drag queen Lola, the two come up with the idea to manufacture a women's boot that can support the weight of a man, meeting a market niche and saving the factory. The two learn much about each other and themselves in the process as well. The musical won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical. However, Kinky Boots is in the category shows that recently won this award (including Once and Memphis) that I find have elements that are almost always good or very good, but rarely fall into the great category reserved for the likes of Fun Home and this year's likely winner Hamilton.
The book by Harvey Fierstein (La Cage aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy) has plenty of heart and effective humor. Its messages about acceptance (of self and others) and loyalty to community are universal and well rendered, but also come across as a bit preachy at times. The story is also somewhat predictable, and the act two conflict feels contrived. Still, the book provides a solid foundation for the musical.
Pop star Cyndi Lauper provides the score for the show. Her songs encompass various musical styles, including musical theater ballads, funk, pop, and even a tango, and often contain an interesting, unexpected melodic line. Her lyrics are somewhat uneven, not always sitting well on the music, but are generally strong. This is Ms. Lauper's initial turn writing for a musical, and her lack of experience is evident at times. Most of the individual songs are effective, but they lack cohesion as a full musical score. The songs for the full ensemble and the drag queens are strong, but a few of Charlie's songs seem generic.
Direction and choreography is by Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde, Gotta Dance). The flow of the scenes and transitions, blocking, and pace are all apt, and he does a wonderful job with both the humor of the piece and in presenting the interrelationships of the characters. The final songs of each act come across as a bit too "showy," though, with the factory conveyor belts used for an unauthentic dance prop in "Everybody Say Yeah"; and "Raise You Up" / "Just Be," the show's finale, moves from reality to fantasy halfway through the song in order to allow all of the cast to each wear a pair of the kinky boots. Mitchell was the choreographer for Hairspray, and much of the joy of that show is replicated in Kinky Boots. His dances here are excellent and athletic for the drag queen "Angels," and they fit the blue-collar persona of the factory workers for the rest of the cast.
J. Harrison Ghee provides a powerhouse performance as Lola, attacking the role with gusto and bravado. He sings with a rich, textured voice perfect in both the lower and upper register, and has both the fierce sass and the tender insecurity to convey this multifaceted character. His numbers, including "Land of Lola," "Not My Father's Son," and "Hold Me In Your Heart," are musical highlights of the show. In addition, what Mr. Ghee and the rest of the Angels can do dance-wise is extraordinary. As Charlie, Adam Kaplan does well with lesser material, and conveys the conflict, enthusiasm, and willingness to change befitting the role. Tiffany Engen is adorable and mines the comedic gold of "The History of Wrong Guys" as Lauren. The entire cast does a great job in all respects.
David Rockwell's scenic design includes a nicely detailed and authentic looking factory, some functional smaller set pieces, and a glitzy Milan fashion show. The lighting by Kenneth Posner is varied and professional. The costumes by Gregg Barnes likewise capture the color and extravagance of the drag outfits, as well as the everyday clothes of the shoe factory employees.
Kinky Boots includes worthwhile life lessons for this modern day world, wrapped in an interesting story. The show is good to very good in its individual elements and overall, but won't go down as one of the lasting classics of this era. However, that won't stop theatergoers from enjoying the flashy, tuneful, and rousing good time presented by a very talented national tour cast.
Kinky Boots continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 17, 2016. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit kinkybootsthemusical.com/tour.php.