Tour Theater Review: KINKY BOOTS (National Tour at Pantages Hollywood)

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by Paul Birchall on April 14, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

BOOTS GOT MY KINKS OUT

Another bus-and-truck tour of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-festooned musical has “sashayed and shanted” its way back into Los Angeles at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, and it may just be the tonic you need after a rough day.

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Oh, yes, one can look at the show with the jaundiced old eye of a real sourpuss and glom onto any number of flaws:  The book is flat out ridiculous.  Come on, a story about a shoe executive saving his company by selling high heeled shoes for drag queens?  That’s absurd.  You could have RuPaul as your chief saleslady and still not sell enough shoes to turn a whole company around.

And, strictly speaking, the show’s structure is almost achingly formulaic to the point of being annoying.  You can almost set your watch to the plot’s convolutions – from when the hero is going to turn his back on his golddigging girlfriend to return to his dead dad’s shoe factory, to when the drag queen shows up at just the right moment to save the day before a major fashion show.

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And, yet, let me tell you something.  After an especially awful day, it turns out that Kinky Boots was just the show I needed.  The production’s gentle, upbeat, good humor flowed over me like a balm for the craziness of the outside world.  It is almost churlish to dwell on the negative elements – and, of course, there are some, for it’s no use pretending this is God’s gift to Broadway – but even if you whip up a mountain from the show’s molehill of cavils, this crowd-pleaser remains just a beguiling, feelgood musical.  I refuse to be the grumpus who says otherwise.

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Northampton, England lad Charlie (Adam Kaplan) has to put his dreams of moving to London on hold after he inherits the family shoe factory following the death of his dad.  With the economy in downturn, the shoe factory is on its last legs – ha ha – but late one night, after Charlie saves drag queen Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) from getting beat up by gay bashers, they come up with a novel way of saving the company.  What if the shoe factory went into business creating boots for drag queens?  Before long, Lola and Charlie’s collaboration has the factory back on its feet – ha ha – though Lola must work hard to overcome the uninformed homophobia of some of the factory workers before they can take the new drag shoes to the Great Shoe Expo in Milan.

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Although the plot is admittedly rather clunky, Fierstein’s book finds a wonderful human soul to even the most broadly limned supporting characters.  The work is crafted to directly ride on the pro-sexual fluidity movement represented by TV shows such as Rupaul’s Drag Race and Transparent, in which drag and sexual identification are simply one more factor in the world’s panoply.  This interpretation of kinder, gentler drag would not work were it not for the remarkably powerful turn by Ghee in the central role of Lola.

Tiffany Engen in the National Tour of Kinky Boots.Ghee manages to straddle both the ferocious attitude of a drag queen on display, as well as a touching vulnerability when he’s out of drag in male street clothes.  His Lola has little to do with sexual orientation and more about being strong enough to literally remake yourself into what you want to be.  His voice is amazing, too:  In his opener “Land of Lola,” he channels Belafonte by way of Eartha Kitt; in his ballad, “Hold Me In Your Heart,” you’d think you were hearing Shirley Bassey.

Rocker Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics are amiable and quick, though admittedly without being memorable.  I think, with the exception of the cool Motown-y production number of the song “Sex is in the Heel” the songs mostly sound the same, even though they’re given delightfully charged delivery by the ensemble.  I also can’t help but think that, in the role of the audience-identifiable hero Charlie, Kaplan is a little light in personality, coming across as bland, though it would be pretty hard for anyone to stand up against Ghee without being blown across the stage.  He has a strong voice, particularly in his ballad “Heart of a Man,” but he never seems to have the hard edge you’d expect from his character.

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David Rockwell’s dingy factory set nicely contrasts with Gregg Barnes’s gorgeous costumes worn by the drag performers.  Although the frocks and drag get-ups never quite match the ingenuity of, say, an episode of Rupaul, they’re still gently naughty in a pleasantly-shock-grandma kind of way.  They also set off the drab, blue collar factory clothes worn by those playing the shoe factory employees.  Supporting performances are delightful as well, from Aaron Walpole’s turn as a Bluto-like homophobe, who gradually realizes the error of his ways, to Tiffany Engan, as one of the factory workers who pines with an unrequited affection for her boss.  In a surprise, former 1980’s and 90’s TV icon Jim J. Bullock, unrecognizable in a beard, trenchcoat, and little beady glasses, plays George, Charlie’s brick of a production manner; what a pleasant joy to see him around again.

In the end, the energy and good humor is really what drives the show, even more than the book and music.  Here’s a musical with heart, vigor, and sweetness that actually essentially subverts attempts to criticize.  I loved it, almost in spite of myself.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots
North American Tour
reviewed at Hollywood Pantages
ends April 24, 2016
tour continues until June 18, 2017
for dates and cities, visit Kinky Boots

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