“Kinky Boots” at the Bushnell — Good Production But Not a Great Musical

KinkyBoots_Gallery2By Karen Isaacs

Kinky Boots which won the Tony for best musical in 2013(I’m not sure why) is now at the Bushnell through June 28.  While overall the production is very good and the audience loved it, there are a few problems.

The show, written by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) is based on a popular British film.  It tells the story of the resurrection of Price and Sons, a generations old family-owned shoe manufacturing company in England.  The company has fallen on hard times due to cheap imports and when the senior Price unexpectedly dies, the job of saving or selling the company falls to his son Charlie. Charlie isn’t in love with the shoe business and has already committed to leaving his childhood town for a marketing job in London with Nicola, his fiancée.

But he is loyal to the workers whose families have worked for the company for generations, and with whom he grew up and went to school.

The other main plot is about Lola — born Simon — a black drag queen.  She/he too has rejected the aspirations of his father, a prize fighter, to follow his own passion.

Charlie and Lola meet outside a club in London when he attempts to prevent her from being assaulted.  Instead, Lola who packs a mean right jab, knocks him out and after recovering in her dressing room, the two find a common interest:  shoes!  Lola complains that the sexy high heels she and her back up “girls” (the Angels) buy are very expensive but cheaply made and are easily destroyed.  Apparently the 5-inch heels aren’t designed to hold a man’s weight.

Thus is born an idea for saving the factory and the jobs.  Create a niche market making sexy shoes for men who like to dress as women and present those to the major shoe buyers at a show in Milan.KinkyBoots_Gallery1

Once that gets decided, the musical revolves around Charlie and Nicola’s deteriorating relationship, getting employees on board with creating the shoes and accepting Lola as the designer.  Of course,  Charlie and Lola also must have a falling out which puts the entire project in jeopardy but rest assured, all ends with reconciliation, self-awareness and universal tolerance.

If that sounds cynical, it is meant to be.  This show which I’ve now seen twice, makes me feel manipulated as an audience member.  It is so formulaic and obvious.  The film seemed to have more depth but in having to condense plot and character development to make room for the musical numbers, that has been lost.

It is as if Fierstein has simply combined elements of La Cage aux Folles (for which he wrote the book based on the French films), Tootsie,  and any number of other shows about drag queens, cross-dressing, acceptance of those who are different, and shook them up in jar and spilled it out.

If it wasn’t so obviously designed to be “commercial” and to leave the audience feeling proud of themselves for their understanding and tolerance, it would be a better show.

As it is, many of the songs go on much too long and do not advance the plot.  The lyrics are simplistic and often repeat themselves.  A good example is a huge production number in the first act, “Sex Is in the Heel”.  After you make the point that high heeled shoes are sexy, where do you go?  Lauper and Fierstein went on for many minutes, lots of great dancing, but basically ending where they began.

So let’s look at this production.  It is a good replication of the Broadway show that is still running.  The set, lighting, costumes are all high quality.  David Rockwell’s set is easily moveable, flexible and recreates the old factory look.

Overall the cast is good and I certainly applaud all who must dance and walk in those extremely high and narrow heels.

Lola/Simon and Joe

Lola/Simon and Joe

I particularly liked Joe Coots as Don, one of the workers who has the most difficulty accepting the change and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Lauren, the local girl who has a major crush on Charlie.

But that brings us to the two leads.  Kyle Taylor Parker is Simon/Lola.  His performance is energetic and good but yet it didn’t have that “wow” factor.  Steven Booth as Charlie did not manage to get below the somewhat bland, underwritten nature of the role.  It was mostly a one note performance except for his two angry outbursts. Charlie just seemed boring.

Booth’s performance also made it more difficult for the two women in his life: Nicola played by Grace Stockdale and Lauren played by Lindsay Nicole Chambers.  Chemistry was lacking.  You did not understand why either lady was in love with him nor that he had any feelings for either of them.

The other major problem with this production was that much of the dialogue and the lyrics sounded muffled making it hard to hear.  You might not miss much with the lyrics but dialogue is important to understand what is happening.  Much of it sounded like it was coming at you through a blanket.  At least two audience members asked me about it at intermission — each wanting to know if I had noticed it or if it was their  hearing.  I had noticed it.

Kyle Taylor Parker as Lola

Kyle Taylor Parker as Lola

The real question is why Fierstein and Lauper chose to keep the show set in England.  It leads to problems with slang that many in the audience did not “get,” and uncertain accents — should they be regional British, London or what?  Many cast members had accents that came and went for no particular reason. Certainly the issue of overseas cheap competition hurting local factories — especially in the shoe industry — is one that is relevant to the US.  The musical version of The Full Monty wisely chose to move the story of out-of-work factory workers from England to Buffalo.

 Yet, despite all my reservations many of you will enjoy the production of this feel good musical. But I am looking forward to Goodspeed’s production of a better musical, La Cage aux Folles.

Kinky Boots is at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford.  For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.KinkyBoots_Gallery4

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