Chicago Theater Review: KINKY BOOTS (Bank of America Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 18, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

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TRYOUT SHOULD GET THE BOOT UNTIL IT WORKS OUT THE KINKS

Prepare yourself for some disparate reviews of Kinky Boots, which had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago’s Bank of America Theater last night. One camp will see the sterling talent and the highly expensive glitz and glamour that many Broadway outings need to disguise mediocre writing and composition, and will leave the theater effusively chanting, “Entertaining,” and “Cute!” Others will be mixed, proclaiming that, with seriously needed rewrites, the show may have a future. Then there are some (of which Stage and Cinema is one) who will notice that the show is a Broadway machine, taking parts of successful shows from the past ten years and scrunching them together in a mash-up that neither reinvents the American musical nor touches our hearts, even as it drips in saccharine sentimentalism. As it stands, this shakedown cruise of a show, if you strip away the big-budgeted trappings, is an incongruent, anachronistic, manipulative mess. But it does have money behind it, so Broadway, here it comes. When Kinky Boots does receive its definitive opening on Broadway (not too soon, it is hoped), one prays that it will be a lot different from what Chicago has seen. It has to be.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of KINKY BOOTS in ChicagoIt’s easy to see what attracted illustrious bookwriter Harvey Fierstein (Newsies), composer/lyricist Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and equally accomplished director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde) to this lesser known (and much darker) 2005 film of the same name. The musical is a blue-collar, Cinderella story that puts its own spin on the feel-good, true success story about a small town England, family-owned shoe factory founded in 1890; one which is about to founder until its reluctant owner discovers a specialty market for women’s shoes made for men: “kinky boots” for drag queens. The film suggests the same sympathy for the underdog as in better British second chance/comeback chronicles like The Full Monty, Billy Elliott, Brassed Off, and Educating Rita.

This is a “world premiere,” but it is a small world after all, for the musical doesn’t just suggest other projects – it imitates and borrows liberally from them. After his father’s death, young man Charlie Price (supple but sad-faced Stark Sands), inherits his dad’s failing business and refuses to turn the factory into condos; by doing so, he would abandon the Northampton folks who’ve been making shoes for the Prices all of Charlie’s life, which hints at It’s a Wonderful Life. The other key character is African-British Lola – aka Simon (Billy Porter, riding a thespian tsunami), the transvestite/amateur boxer who headlines a London cabaret drag show, one which smacks of Fierstein’s triumph, La Cage Aux Folles (although a gratuitous and weird boxing match between Simon and a factory lout is no match for Jerry Herman’s “Masculinity” number).

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of KINKY BOOTS in ChicagoLola’s fellow female impersonators need a shoemaker who can give their footwear the necessary strength to fit their size and style, and Charlie hires Lola as a designer after she proclaims, “Sex Is In The Heel”; thus, the show exploits the unlikely partnership between two very different dreamers, but both the financial desperation and north England working class background feel like The Full Monty, and that same milieu combined with father issues smells like Billy Elliott.

It’s a marriage made in, well, Northampton. Will Lola’s infectious but dangerous delight (“Beware the Black Widow”) free Charlie from his morose perfectionism and sublimated homophobia, not to mention a control-freak girlfriend? Will Charlie’s work ethic sober up Simon so he can pursue the unsought destiny of a designer? Will the “kinky boots” find their niche market or be dismissed as a foot fetish? As it turns out, we never do find out if they succeed, believe it or not.

It’s a plot premise no more trite than most on the musical stage, and Act I involves most of the boot development plot. Mitchell’s athletic choreography is best at the end of the act, which is a high-speed dance number on a row of moving conveyor belts. Even though Lauper’s song, “Everybody Say Yeah,” is a bust, the staging is a hoot – but can someone explain how Lola’s cronies suddenly appear in costumes that share the same rack as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of KINKY BOOTS in ChicagoIt is in the contrived, touchy feely second act when most questions raise their ugly heads. The question and answer from the creators is, “Can’t we all just tolerate and embrace diversity?” and “Yes, we can!” Will various artificial complications forfeit the show’s supposed compassion for life’s losers? Charlie, before he’s even sold one pair of boots, seeks improbable success at a Milan fashion show, then stupidly decides to hire professional female models to show off men’s footwear. Will this crack-brained entrepreneur, after he can’t find the right girls, then decide to strut the runway and show off the boots himself? only to be rescued by Lola at the last minute? even though a few scenes before Charlie had gratuitously questioned Simon’s masculinity? (You guessed right!) You’d think there’d be at least one scene where Charlie goes to an actual London drag queen hotspot and tries to sell some shoes. How many such clubs could there be, entailing – what? – one week of salesmanship at most? No, it’s Milan or bust! With Charlie as the only model!

Shortfalls lurk throughout the story: Why is there no attempt to explore and celebrate the common ground of hard luck and social prejudice that could bond the shoe company workers with the drag queens who descend on their factory? (Something like, “The Workers and the Drag Queens Should Be Friends,” maybe?) Why should we get from the start that Charlie’s girlfriend will dump him (“So Long, Charlie”) and why does that pushy girlfriend suddenly show up at the Milan fashion show (the flamboyant ending) when she and Charlie parted company long before? Why does so much of this feel like it was NOT based on a true story?

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of KINKY BOOTS in ChicagoAnd why are there two heart-on-the-sleeve, eleven o’clock numbers? Without motivation, Charlie becomes incongruously anguished and nasty in the second act, which leads to the unfortunately overwrought Sands milking and belting out “The Soul of a Man,” followed by Porter anguishing during “Hold Me in Your Heart.” And why can’t I remember a thing about these manipulating supposed showstoppers? Because while there are missed opportunities that could possibly be redeemed by rewrites, Lauper’s serviceable though totally familiar pop anthems are no more than throwbacks to the 1980’s. Since this is Lauper’s first show, it’s unsurprising that her songs rarely develop character, heighten emotion, or forward the plot. Audience members who just want to have fun may excuse the songwriting, but discerning theatergoers will be left in the dark. The best song of the night, “The History Of Wrong Guys,” is winningly sung by Annaleigh Ashford as an enamored factory girl, even as she is a clone of Lauper from her 80’s music videos.

And why, when Lola performs at a convalescent home, does designer Kenneth Posner utilize enough rock concert instruments to light up all of Chicagoland? It’s because the material he is lighting is not to be trusted on its own. To quote Kander and Ebb, “Give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle, and they’ll never catch wise.” It’s hard to connect the failing factory in the first scene with the balls-out runway extravaganza that closes the show. Somewhere in between, Kinky Boots, a retread packaged in a multi-million dollar production, lost its way and its heart.

production photos by Sean Williams

Kinky Boots
presented by Broadway in Chicago at Bank of America Theatre
scheduled to end on Nov. 4, 2012
for tickets call 800-775-2000 or visit http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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