‘Kinky Boots’ preaches tolerance — and high heels

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“Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds!”

Step right up for the most feel-good show of this SHN season! It is the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, with an original score by Cyndi Lauper, a book by Harvey Fierstein, and directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Fret not, this superstar triad has spawned an unparalleled commercial success, ready to spoonfeed you what is perhaps the weariest of 21st-century Broadway archetypes: the sequin-clad, black drag queen who spits out wisdom like an automated fortune cookie.

Adapting the eponymous 2005 Britcom to the stage, Fierstein and Lauper bring alive the story of Charlie (Steven Booth,) a young man from Northampton who unwillingly inherits his father’s shoe factory. Under threat of foreclosure, the shoe business needs to find a new niche market in order to survive the onslaught of globalization. This is when Charlie meets Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker,) a London drag queen with a problem – high heels are made for women, and cannot withstand the weight of a man. In what might just be the most predictable plotline since 50 Shades! The Musical, Kinky Boots sashays into the fringe world of shoe business and follows Charlie and Lola as they attempt to save the factory.

If motion produces emotion, then Kinky Boots is the theatrical equivalent of an El Toro Loco Monster Truck. Charging at the audience with a glitter- and Lauper-infused Broadway pizazz, the show asks — no, demands — that you love it. However, for all of its demands, it never once manages to command deep emotional investment from the audience, which, in San Francisco, is bound to include at least a dozen of loud and liquored-up local drag queens. They clap along to the tunes they are supposed to clap to and they laugh right where they are supposed to laugh.

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Kinky Boots has all the elements of a feel-good musical: the coming-of-age ballad with the dramatic key change, the rag tag team who pulls together against all odds, the goofy girl getting the guy, the polemical self-love and acceptance, the “go us!” dance number at the end–along with fabulous costumes and jazz hands. Deep down, there’s a faith in the human spirit and a belief that there’s nothing a good old fashioned box step can’t fix. The one number where the script transcends its predictability is ‘Not My Father’s Son,’ a singular genuine moment in which Charlie and Lola connect over their father’s expectations of them.

But while Kinky Boots follows the feel-good formula and the singers all hit their notes, there isn’t enough oomph behind the glitter. The acting fails to make the characters’ emotions believable or their decisions convincing; Steven Booth as Charlie lacks charisma and over-performs his part to the point of being annoyingly predictable, despite his vocal chops. Kyle Taylor Parker fares better as Lola but could use more attitude–his personality doesn’t jump off the stage, even when wearing bright red high-heeled boots. Acting stand-outs are Lindsay Nicole Chambers, whose comedic timing is perfect as love interest Lauren and brings genuine energy to the cast, and Joe Coots as he-man factory worker Don, whose appearance in the final number brings down the house.

The show’s fixation on the superficial is reflected in its high production value. The innovative set is well-designed, providing many staircases for dramatic entrances and a working assembly line that becomes a moving stage for the closing song of the first act. Most impressive are the drag masterpieces costume designer Gregg Barnes whips up for Lola and her ass-kicking posse of queens. From sassy trench coats to lacy brassieres and brightly colored over-the-knee boots (with steel heels covered in glitter), Barnes turns Kinky Boots into a visual spectacle worth ogling.

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It is in its most queer aspects that Kinky Boots is the least subversive. Its drag, the donning of clothes and behaviors traditionally worn by the opposite gender, is less controversial than one would expect. Making a strict distinction between drag queens and trans folks, Fierstein shuts the door on gender fluidity, perhaps even positing that doing drag and being trans are somehow mutually exclusive. This cannot really be the case, as there are drag performers who identify as transwomen, LA-based queens Monica Beverly Hillz and Sonique being two of them. Yes, drag and trans are different — drag is what one does, and trans is who one is. But Lola’s sexuality and gender identity are consistently swept under the rug. In its black-and-white, mildly and unacceptably transphobic story, Kinky Boots forgets to be as inclusive as the message of acceptance it blasts at the audience.

There is, nevertheless, something to be said for the commercial nature of the show. As the show continues to remind us, the sex is in the heel, and sex sells — it sells show tickets, for instance. One cannot help but think of all the hesitant spouses who were dragged to the show, and left with their minds just a little more open. And perhaps the only form of mind-opening activism needn’t lie on the picket line, megaphone in one’s hand and radicalism in one’s heart. One thing is certain: in its own twisted and oftentimes unpardonable way, Kinky Boots is a well-choreographed, boa-donning, richly-bedazzled powerhouse of a musical — one that acts as a Trojan Horse, infiltrating the mainstream, and attempting to blow it up from within — until the whole world clamors for kinky boots.


Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

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