at the theatre: kinky boots

kinky boots

These boots aren’t made just for walking. In the talented hands (and heels) of a drag queen called Lola – a role that should finally make the estimable talents of Billy Porter familiar to a wider audience – they’re made for high kicks, chassés, and fierce, show-stopping realness. Drab brown brogues be gone; thanks to Lola and her kinky boot designs a struggling family run shoe factory in the middling English Midlands will survive. Yet Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s new chocolate box of a musical is about more than just middle class survival, noble as that might be. Like Billy Elliot, to which it owes a debt of gratitude, Kinky Boots extols the virtues of embracing the ineffable thing inside you that allows you to thrive. Let it raise you up, the company, led by Lola, sings in a rousing finale that gives a tantalizing taste of what this musical might have been. But as directed – and I use that term loosely – by Jerry Mitchell the drama which precedes it is messy, unfocused, and as clunky as an old pair of cha-cha heels. Lacking either the critical eye of a dramaturge or the flair of a showman, Mitchell is unable to take Lola’s advice and raise up the promising framework of his collaborators. Certainly a musical should be able to stand alone on it’s own feet, but I often I had the sinking feeling that nobody with an objective, incisive eye was pushing the talented team at the Al Hirschfeld Theater towards doing their best work. Individuals left to do his or her own thing lead to a wall full of spaghetti: only the overdone bits tend to stick. Which is a drag, literally. That’s not to say that Kinky Boots isn’t often entertaining, because it is, especially when the dynamic Mr. Porter takes center stage. I just wish he had some help in trying to raise up his surroundings. As Charlie, a young man who inherits his father’s shoe factory and finds himself stricken by a bout of George Bailey-itis, Stark Sands has a natural, winning charisma. He doesn’t possess the voice of a trained singer but he gives it the old college try and the strain shows only occasionally. He is, however, cast adrift by Mr. Mitchell more than once – most egregiously in his big eleven o’clock number, The Soul of a Man, a vocally challenging, emotional turning point in which Mr. Sands is left to pointlessly wander around the apron of the stage. Annaleigh Ashford plays it broader but fares better as one of the hapless factory workers with a hopeless crush on Charlie, not to mention a history of always choosing the wrong guys, which she sings about to great comedic effect. Performed with gusto, The History of Wrong Guys comes close to bringing down the house and it would if someone put a proper button on the end of the song. This inattention to detail builds up throughout the evening like an exercise in self sabotage – something no self-respecting drag queen worth her sequins would stand for. Kinky Boots could have (should have) been as capital-F fabulous as the glittering red heels of its title. Instead it’s been stitched and stretched into something altogether more ordinary – kind of like that pair of drab brown brogues.

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