(This is the review of the same production that ran at the Arsht in December)
By Bill Hirschman
Contrary to some opinions, critics are human, too. So, feeling decidedly blue Tuesday, I went into the national tour of Kinky Boots wanting this reportedly boisterous, life-affirming and joyful romp-with-a-message to lift me out of “a siege of the sads” as they say in Pippin.
It didn’t. The droll story of a drag queen rescuing a failing shoe factory by switching its focus to thigh-high boots favored by cross-dressers was, indeed, a well-polished evening of musical comedy with soulful ballads and glitzy production numbers.
But this construction, which swept six 2013 Tony Awards, felt so manipulative, so by-the-numbers as if it, too, came off a factory production line. Most of the people in the audience not coping with seasonal depression seemed to have an entertaining time, but it felt like junk food that doesn’t stick your ribs, brain or heart. It ain’t Hamilton.
The show could almost be heard encouraging the audience to congratulate themselves for going to see a show about drag queens like a senior citizen center’s “daring” field trip and finding, “Why, Mildred, they’re just like us in many ways!”
The 2005 film material underwent a lot of development from bookwriter Harvey Fierstein who visited similar material in La Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy, first-time Broadway composer and pop queen Cyndi Lauper, and one of the hottest director-choreographers working today, Jerry Mitchell. They saw the theatrically-pungent opportunity for splashy cabaret numbers with a chorus line of drag performers in stunning frocks and six-inch heels as well as the visual humor in seeing said performers mixing it up with blue collar factory workers.
The set up is that Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) is a young man with no interest in taking over his father’s third-generation factory which makes high-quality shoes in the Midlands of England. He takes off for London with his social-climbing money-obsessed girlfriend Nicola (Charissa Hogeland). The father dies, leaving the family business and the fate of employees Charlie grew up with in his reluctant hands – just as the demand for the shoes dries up and threatens the factory’s future.
Charlie accidentally meets Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), an unusually tall and charismatic cabaret performer with a broken boot heel. Charlie gets the idea of retooling the business as a niche market for the drag performers, although the stylish creations might become a high fashion hit for mainstream patrons. Charlie brings Lola in to design the boots, leading to a culture clash between Lola, her colleagues and the factory workers. Nicola becomes disenchanted with Charlie’s sudden passion for the business in the hinterland just as long-time factory worker Lauren (Tiffany Engen) nurtures a crush on him.
Both Charlie and Lola, born a few shires over as Simon, have serious father issues that they have to work before coming to fully accept themselves and each other.
The second of two better-than-average aspects of the show is Fierstein’s script. Somehow, he has sensitively brought out the themes of acceptance, tolerance, pride, self-worth, becoming who you want to be, and the struggle of sons to escape their fathers’ expectations without getting too deep into the territory of laboriously politically correct uplifting movies of the week.
Surprisingly, the most rote aspect is the score by the rightfully revered pop composer and performer Cyndi Lauper, a Broadway fan and sometime actress making her bow as a theater writer. Her music is catchy in a disco/pop kind of way although hardly memorable (Try singing any of the melodies an hour later) but the lyrics are mostly bland and uninspired.
Well, that applies to the lyrics I understood. Sitting on the aisle in Row K of the Arsht, at least a third of the lyrics and the dialogue were unintelligible. Was this the sound quality, a cast of young Americans struggling with a British Midlands accent or just a lack of enunciation?
The cast is perfectly average but no one sets the place ablaze, including the standard issue hero. Not a lot of electricity pours from the stage.
Of course, there is one obvious and glorious exception that makes the production worth seeing, thankfully. This production and its audiences are gifted with the scintillating performance of Ghee as Lola/Simon. Performing on stage or on the factory floor, Ghee’s tall, leggy and lovely Lola seems smoothly comfortable with her fabulous persona, vivaciously striding proudly several inches above everyone else both physically and emotionally. Ghee and Lola convince everyone around him that he is, indeed, living life as he sees he should – essentially hewing to what he feels is normal for him. But Ghee is just as convincing the few times Lola lets the baubles and bangles fall to the floor, exposing a sensitive nuanced Simon struggling with his own issues.
Side note: The unusually effective pre-show admonition against cellphones use was delivered in a hilarious speech by actor Aaron Walpole as the factory worker Don pretending to speak to someone on his own phone.
Most people in the audience seemed to enjoy the evening, so, perhaps, it was just me. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.
Kinky Boots from Broadway Across Fort Lauderdale runs through March 13 a at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including a 20-minute intermission. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $30-$125. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org