First among the many strengths of the musical are the song and dance numbers staged by Jerry Mitchell. They're sassy and flashy numbers that mostly involve drag queens, so we have gorgeous gowns to boot. The cast dances to energetic new songs with a pop dance beat by Cyndi Lauper in her first score for the theatre. Lead singer and dancer for the big numbers is Billy Porter, giving a sensational performance as the drag artist Lola, who teaches Charlie to be a better person. But as director-choreographer, Mitchell has given more stage time and energy to staging spectacular numbers than he has to storytelling. And whoever's to blamedirector, writer or producersthe result is that Fierstein's book is little more than exposition peppered by some (very funny, it must be noted) trademark Fierstein barbs.
Kinky Boots's book is exposition heavy because it has a lot of story and a lot of conflicts to be laid out and sorted out. Following a quiet and very sweet prologue in which we see both Charlie and Lola (née Simon) as little boys with their fathers, Charlie leaves his small town home and the family business to pursue a business career in London with his upwardly mobile fiancée Nicola (Celina Carvajal). Shortly thereafter, his father dies and Charlie returns home to Northampton to learn that the family business, Price and Son, has been failing for many years and is about to go under. He's initially happy to see it close, so he can pursue his budding career in London. On the urging of an employee named Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), though, he develops compassion for the employees who will lose their jobs and starts to think of ways to keep the factory afloat. He recalls an observation by Lola, whom he met in London when trying to protect her from a bashing by street thugs, that the high-heeled boots worn by male drag performers are expensive and poor quality because they're not built to carry a man's weight. Charlie gets the idea to make women's boots as fetish wear for men, and recruits Lola to come up to Northampton to design them.
The problem with Charlie, dramatically, is not that he doesn't have hills to climb; it's that he has too many. There's his strained relationship with his socially ambitious fiancée, a potential romance with Lauren, his relationship with Lola, his relationship with his employees, and his need to feel that he's as good a man as was his big-hearted father. And Charlie's just one of two lead characters. All of his conflicts are laid out, but we never really know enough about Charlienot from things he says or behaviors we seeto get a sense of the person and what he has to change in order to become a better and happier one. Why did he leave Northampton, why was he attracted to Nicola, is he a bad manager? Is he selfish, or just un-self-aware? And there's not much of a journey in his friendship with Lola. He seems quite comfortable with Lola from the get-go, in spite of their differences, and the second act falling out between the two of them seems so contrived that there's no catharsis when it's (predictably) resolved before the musically and emotionally upbeat finale. Fierstein doesn't give Sands much to work with to create a real person in Charlie. Though Sands is attractive and likable and has a big pop voice, he's unable to fill in the blanks enough to carry the story.
That's a problem, because Charlie is the one with the journey to take. For the most part, Lola is going to be fine whatever happens. Lola is a wise, together person who has more to teach these small town people than to learn. That said, we find out that Lola has some unresolved issues with her father, the dad who rejected him. Lola is not only the more interesting character, but Porter's knockout performance keeps Lola the center of attention. This is fine for entertainment purposes, but not so much for dramatic storytelling, as Charlie is the real protagonist.
Mitchell, Fierstein and even Lauper can also be faulted for missing opportunities to exploit, yes, but also to explain some of the conflicts in the situations. Why doesn't the appearance of Lola and her backup "angels" cause more of a stir in this provincial town? Sure there's some conflict between Lola and the rough factory worker Don who harasses herand that situation is handled believably, sensitively and satisfyingly with Daniel Stewart Sherman making a redeemable bully of Don. But otherwise, the factory workers, who credibly include a range of body types and apparent ages to look like a real labor force, don't seem too put off by the appearance of six drag queens in their little town and factory. Here's where Lauper misses an opportunity. While her dance beat heavy score is perfect for the drag performers' numberssome of them danced with the factory workersLauper doesn't create a musical vocabulary for the workers themselves. It seems there ought to be a separate palette for that world, one that would establish the "Billy Elliot" sort of grittiness that set designer David Rockwell accomplishes for Kinky Boots. His factory design is at once realistic but romantic enough for a musicaljust perfect for this show and a departure from his more fanciful designs for shows like Hairspray and All Shook Up. It would have been effective for Lauper to create more of a dichotomous musical vocabulary for the workers and the drags, just as Rockwell and costume designer Gregg Barnes did in designing two separate worlds for those groups. As is it, between Lauper's mostly urban pop score and Fierstein's failure to adequately give a reason for the Angels trip to Northampton or to create sufficient tension around the intersection of these two worlds, it seems the girls are in the factory just so they can be in the dance numbers.
Lauper's songs are fun, though, and her music has a sound that feels fresh for the Broadway stage and is theatrical. Besides the dance numbers, her score includes tasty songs like "The History of Wrong Guys," belted most impressively Ms. Ashford when Lauren realizes she's in love with the engaged Charlie. There's also the Whitney Houston-esque power ballad "Hold Me in Your Heart" that makes a great eleven o'clock number for Lola. And the finale, "Raise You Up/Just Be," is a high energy song with a great hook that sends the audience out humming and boogieing regardless of what may be any dramatic deficiencies in the script. The songs, though, don't advance the plot or enhance our understanding of the characters in the ways the better musical theater songs do. When Lauren's "The History of Wrong Guys" or Charlie's "The Soul of a Man" (his song of angst as it appears his plans to save the factory are failing) are complete, we still don't know any more or feel any differently about Lauren or Charlie than we did when they started singing.
As it is, the musical delivers pure song and dance entertainment at a high level, with sensational performances and production values (including quite flashy lighting by Kenneth Posner) and with a lot of heart. But, if the dials could be tweaked to get the audience more invested in Charlie, to deliver the feel-good punch of the best of that genre, Kinky Boots could become an enduring musical favorite. In its current form, it risks being a one-season wonder, and dismissed as a tourist-friendly confection.
Kinky Boots will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 West Monroe St., Chicago, through November 4, 2012. Ticket information is available at www.broadwayinchicago.com, at all Broadway in Chicago Ticket Offices or by phone at 800-775-2000. For more information on the show, visit www.kinkybootsthemusical.com.