Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 4, 2013
Kinky Boots Book by Harvey Fierstein. Music & lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Based on the Miramax motion picture Kinky Boots, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music supervision, arrangements, & orchestrations by Stephen Oremus. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by John Shivers. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Make-up design by Randy Houston Mercer. Cast: Stark Sands, Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford, Celina Carvajal, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Marcus Neville, Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Andy Kelso, Tory Ross, Jennifer Perry, Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Marquise Neal, Adinah Alexander, Eric Anderson, Eugene Barry-Hill, Stephen Berger, Caroline Bowman, Cole Bullock, Sandra DeNise, Jonah Halperin, Eric Leviton, Ellyn Marie Marsh, John Jeffrey Martin, Nathan Peck, Robert Pendilla, Lucia Spina, Timothy Ware.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the show’s pivotal “ah ha!” moment — albeit not quite in the way that either librettist Harvey Fierstein or songwriter Cyndi Lauper intended in adapting the 2005 British film of the same name. Though this does indeed provide the support the characters are looking for in one way, it also draws unfortunate attention to exactly what is missing from the rest of the show: a metal spine.
The two leads are, in theory, reasonable enough. Charlie (Stark Sands), the son of Price & Son, is the knowledgeable but reluctant shoemaker forced into the flailing family trade after his father’s death. Lola (Billy Porter) is the black transvestite Charlie meets in London while attempting (and failing) to save from a mugging in an alley, but whose spunk and fashion sense is the perfect contrast for the starchy Charlie. The two are natural choices for collaborating on the project of creating sexy women’s boots for men, the “niche market” Charlie hopes will turn around his fortunes. But rest assured that when Charlie needs to forget basic shoemaking techniques, or Lola needs to acquire them, Fierstein’s book will make it happen.
It invokes other forms of by-request magic, too. Need a villain? Make Charlie’s materialistic girlfriend, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), an ice queen in a Goth wig, her very presence onstage a projectile vomit of doom. For the de rigueur “sensible” love interest, Charlie’s spunky blonde employee Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), who conveniently knows more about the business world than Charlie does, is the obvious choice — she’s even a prime target for a dopey, mumbling solo about her troublesome past with men. (For what it’s worth, neither relationship is consummated with a song.) As for cross-dressing backup singers, why not bring them on whenever? This is a musical — no one cares if it takes itself seriously!
Even so, the first act never gets worse than middling. Fierstein sticks close to Geoff Deane and Tim Firth’s screenplay, scoring no significant laughs or insights, but also not breaking anything beyond repair. And 1980s pop sensation Lauper, who’s making her theatrical writing debut, has provided a series of catchily bouncy tunes that almost — almost — make working in a shoe factory look like it could be fun. If not for her white-noise lyrics, which include bizarre revelations like “From London to Milan / Stilettos are an ism” when they’re not disregarding dramatic specificity altogether (the first-act finale is the cringe-worthy, self-describing “Everybody Says Yeah”), she would have honest-to-goodness second tier potential.
The second act, alas, craters entirely. Its first 20 minutes is devoted to a witless competition between Lola and the dullish, difficult Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman); and later, Nicola bows out to be replaced by Lauren with little more than a shrug from Fierstein’s dialogue. But the biggest trouble is Charlie’s late-show transformations, first into fire-breathing totalitarianism (to get the boots ready for a major fashion show) and even full-on homophobia (when dealing with Lola and company).
As Fierstein has written Charlie, and as Sands plays him, the outburst seems motivated by nothing other than a desire to have a last-minute bad guy. The film’s Charlie is self-consciously uncomfortable with Lola throughout, but suppresses it until he’s pushed by a cascade of extenuating circumstances into his (relatively tame) condemnation; the stage Charlie is sweetly, obliviously accepting until the instant Fierstein needs him to be something else. This shamelessly manipulative turnabout detonates the show’s sense of goodwill and sends it off in pursuit of a cheap message that could have been made without sacrificing the character’s integrity.
Sands, who’s proven himself a gifted actor in Journey’s End and American Idiot, cannot negotiate a road this bumpy; though he’s generally charming throughout, he’s maddeningly unconvincing when forced to abandon Charlie’s foundations. He’s also, sad to say, vocally lost: A passable if unpolished singer, he lacks the range to hit some of Lauper’s most far-ranging notes and, especially at the end of his big finding-his-purpose solo, “Step One,” can be truly painful to listen to.
Porter faces no such limitations, and sounds terrific singing Lola’s forgettable songs, and delivers her lines with an engaging, bright sass. He’s less successful as Simon, however, and fails to connect with the pain that imbues his more soul-searching numbers, the maudlin “I’m Not My Father’s Son” and “Hold Me in Your Heart.”
Mitchell hasn’t apparently paid much attention to anyone else; he’s deployed a lot of strut-heavy dances that evince high energy without ever really exciting, and suggest motion free of innovation. (One number makes but glancing use of two working treadmills onstage at that point; the mind boggles at the more visionary possibilities a Michael Bennett or Tommy Tune might have unlocked in them.) David Rockwell’s scenic design is an uninspired, industrial-looking unit set that captures neither the drudgery of menial labor or the possibilities of escaping it; Kenneth Posner’s lights and, more unthinkably given the material, Gregg Barnes’s costumes are at best workmanlike.
Its own lack of daring is perhaps Kinky Boots’s most glaring failing — the absence of danger or a believable threat keeps the stakes, and thus any enjoyment, artificially low throughout. Fierstein and Lauper have crafted a gay tolerance plea that’s safe enough to take your grandmother to, but they’ve left out the guts that might make it worth seeing for her — or for you.