By Richard Ades
I have to admit I went into Kinky Boots with a small chip on my shoulder.
In 2013, Matilda the Musical was expected to win a slew of Tony Awards, including for best musical. Instead, despite having opened to mixed reviews, Kinky Boots danced away with the top prize.
Full disclosure: I love Matilda the Musical. Seeing it was my favorite Broadway experience since Memphis. After Kinky Boots beat out the magical lass for the top prize and others, including Cyndi Lauper’s win for best score, I decided it had better be damn good.
Anyway, that was my mindset going into the Ohio Theatre on Tuesday night, which helps to explain why it took me a while to warm up to the show. Eventually, though, I came around.
Adapted by Harvey Fierstein from a 2005 movie, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie (Steven Booth), a young Englishman who’s preparing to move to London with his fiancée, Nicola (Charissa Hogeland). In the process, he’s leaving behind the family business, a Northampton shoe factory run by his father (Tom Souhrada).
No sooner does Charlie get to London, however, than he learns his father has died. As if that weren’t enough bad news, he then realizes the company is going broke because it can’t compete in a market flooded with cheap, foreign-made shoes.
Enter Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker), a drag performer whose chief problem seems to be her inability to find high-heeled boots strong enough to support her male frame. Thanks to a suggestion from factory worker Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), Charlie realizes the only way to save the business—along with the jobs of the people he grew up with—is to find a niche need and fill it. His solution: Start making sturdy, yet stylish, footwear for the discriminating cross-dresser.
I said I eventually came around on Kinky Boots, but that doesn’t mean I love everything about it. You don’t have to be an expert on Morse code to recognize that Fierstein is telegraphing plot points well in advance, including the fate of Charlie’s relationship with the sour-tempered Nicola. And things get even more transparent in the second act, when Fierstein manufactures conflicts by having Charlie act in totally unconvincing ways.
The show’s salvation is Lauper’s genre-hopping score, which earns its Tony. A couple of the songs strike me as derivative, but they’re generally enjoyable and catchy.
Of course, any production rises or falls on the strength of its cast, and this touring show’s cast acts, sings and dances delightfully under the guidance of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. At the top of the bill, Booth is relatable as Charlie, while Parker is nothing short of amazing as the sassy, yet soulful, Lola.
Some early critics complained that the show loses steam in the second act, but I actually like it better because it gives Lola a chance to grow into something beyond a flashy stereotype. Yes, Lola’s production numbers with her lascivious “Angels” are fun, but Parker’s best moment comes when Lola slows down for the Act 2 lament Hold Me in Your Heart. It’s a true show stopper.
Visually, the show is equally impressive, thanks to Gregg Barnes’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and David Rockwell’s glorious scenery.
The one place the touring show could stand improvement is in the area of the sound. On opening night, whole lines of dialogue and lyrics were indecipherable. The English accents were partially to blame, but poor mixing seemed to be the main culprit. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed as the week goes on.
Did Kinky Books deserve to steal the top Tony away from Matilda? Not in my book. But it does give musical-loving theatergoers a colorful, toe-tapping good time.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Kinky Boots Oct. 6-11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$118. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.