Kinky Boots (WE 2015)
Sep 14, 2015
The Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson said that the \"large, loud, lavish, vulgar musical show\" was the great American contribution to world theatre. All of these adjectives apply to this autumn\'s major Broadway import, Kinky Boots; and in ascending order. It\'s the kind of show that makes Mamma Mia! look like Peer Gynt and has a similar propensity to play to the gallery. There\'s as much mugging and over-acting as in any panto. But if that\'s your bag then this is the show for you.
Imported Broadway musicals have often had a tough time equaling their success in London. For every Book of Mormon or Hairspray there is a Rent or Spring Awakening that for whatever reason fails to find an audience.
Two of the best recent imports, Legally Blonde and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (both brilliant and popular), shared director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. He also helms Kinky Boots. Like those, and indeed Hairspray which he also choreographed, it is based on a cult film with a camp premise.
In this case it is the story of a nerdy guy, Charlie Price (Killian Donnelly of The Commitments fame), who inherits his father\'s struggling shoe factory in Northampton and meets a drag act named Lola (Matt Henry, a finalist in The Voice but with a long theatre and music pedigree). The idea emerges to diversify into platform heels, or \"kinky boots\". Will they get to show off their bright, glittery platforms on the catwalks of Milan? Guess.
Kinky Boots is a pop-scored camp-fest aimed resolutely at young women and gay men looking for a night out. Cyndi Lauper\'s score (for which she won a Tony) is full-tilt synth-and-guitar pop. \"Sex is in the Heel\" has the kind of riff that would make clubbers in Soho very happy indeed, and I defy anyone not to want to play the cast album at full blast while getting ready for a night on the lash. The dramatic value of the songs is many leagues below, say, Matilda (the great British musical which it astonishingly beat to the Best Musical Tony two years ago) but it has plenty of funk and if you get bored by the prancing around and extravagant use of whizzy lights then you could do worse than look around the stalls to see people pulsing their chins to the funky beats.
Donnelly and Henry have great rock tenor voices and are given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate them as they belt out number after number. Henry is more compelling in his sadder moments though, when he is able to allow some heart to take the place of his near-constant sass. Amy Lennox is also funny in the one song in her one-dimensional supporting role.
And of course there are the shoes. It\'s clear from very early on that this is the kind of show that is going to end up with a parade of men in platform boots leading us in a clap-along. No harm in that.
Given the frivolity, it would be churlish to note just how poor the normally great Harvey Fierstein\'s book is. The man who wrote La Cage Aux Folles and Hairspray now turns himself into the script-writer\'s equivalent of Dick Van Dyke, with the (all English) characters using a bizarre mix of Americanisms (\"We\'re done here\" and repeatedly \"London Town\") and uber-retro English phrases which nobody has uttered here in thirty years (\"chums\", \"cripes\", even \"lest you think\" at one point). He even has a 20-something working class girl say \"I\'ll stand by you if you give me but one reason\". If only we all spoke like that.
Sentimentality is mistaken for honesty and we get a fair bit of mawkishness. \"Like every dog I\'ve ever met you only growl because you\'re scared\" someone says at one point. Cripes.
Like almost all American musicals, Kinky Boots works its way from \"This is who I am, what\'s it to you?\" to \"Why can\'t we all just accept each other for who we are?\" And the attitude of prejudice expressed by one character is more suited to a 70s sitcom than a Northampton factory in the 21st Century.
But for all its crimes against intelligence and subtlety the songs are funky, the heels are high, the volume is pumped and the lights are bright. So what\'s there to worry about? It\'s not in any way art but, at least for most people the night I was there, it\'s a jubilant entertainment. Even if the show feels to me like it stumbles more often that it walks, Kinky Boots is clearly ready for a long run.
Originally posted: Places & Faces Magazine, November 2015