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.


at the theatre: priscilla, queen of the desert

The night before Sunday’s Tony Awards I felt a need, a compulsion, really, to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for myriad reasons: I am a big fan of the film; a friend’s ex did the sets; and duh, not since Judy and Liza played the Palace has there been a greater gay quotient on Broadway. Plus, of all this season’s nominated productions Priscilla was the lone holdout – the missing Playbill in my commemorative 2010/11 collection. Let me be blunt, however:  this was not a case of saving the best for last. Belabored would be more apt. Australia is not a country known for its grasp of subtlety. That’s not a put down by any means. Much like America and our own cultural export, what’s so appealing about Oz is its naive and unabashed cultural optimism. It speaks in wide, earnest brush strokes, appealing to the broadest possible constituency. What’s hinted at on entering the lobby at the Palace Theater and soon becomes abundantly clear in the first five minutes of the show is that Priscilla, the intimate and affecting little film was a storytelling anomaly. Priscilla, the musical is determined to reinforce the Australian national zeitgeist – and it has all the trappings of a drunken hen weekend in Brisbane. Now let me go ahead and contradict myself:  for all the self-conscious tackiness on display, the – God, help me – audience participation, the musical numbers that elicit unintentional laughs due to lyrics that just don’t fit, it’s hard to truly hate Priscilla. At its heart the story is a journey of recognizing and accepting the basic human decency that exists inside us all, despite what external appearances might project. To turn one’s nose up at that seems so unseemly, so cynical. Yet I can’t help but still wish that those theatrical wizards from Down Under put as much effort into telling the tale as they did in figuring out how to replace the ABBA songs which were so central to the film – and currently enjoying exclusive use down the street at Mamma Mia – with ones by Madonna. Hats off to Tony Sheldon, who deserved a Tony for Best Supporting Actor, not Leading as he was mistakenly nominated. Every time Priscilla comes perilously close to completely losing her soul – and its often, trust me – Sheldon brings it back to earth as Bernadette, the transsexual with a heart made of Marmite. Miscast in the central role of Tick, Will Swenson does what he can but his voice is not right and his shoulders are not wide enough to carry the show. On the other hand Nick Adams’ shoulders are not only wide, but sculpted – as is every other inch of him. His Felicia not only subverts the entire drag conceit with a well-displayed chiseled physique, but with his wide-eyed optimism and Mickey and Judy attitude, he seems to have dropped in from an altogether different – and vastly more appealing – land of Oz.


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