BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “Sex shouldn’t be comfy,” chides a drag queen in “Kinky Boots” after inspecting a pair of dowdy boots with a sensible block heel that a clueless shoemaker crafted for her. “Comfy is what’s putting you out of business.”
Pity that the creative team chose to ignore this warning, producing a formulaic, feel-good musical with all the edginess of a drag dinner cabaret at Lucky Cheng’s just a few blocks north of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the show is making its Broadway debut. This well-worn, not-so-kinky “Boots” is so comfortable you may develop an acute case of restless legs syndrome.
Which is not to say that “Kinky Boots,” based on the 2005 eponymous movie, is not intermittently entertaining. It’s just that for all the hype surrounding this “hotly anticipated” new musical — boasting the firepower of Harvey Fierstein (book), Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics), and Jerry Mitchell (direction and choreography) — I had hoped they would rise above the original broad Britcom.
These boots are made for dancing, but we know those steps all too well
The I-am-what-I-am story, borrowed liberally from “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Full Monty,” and, to a surprising extent, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” feels all too familiar even if you haven’t seen the movie.
The aimless Charlie Price, who once refused to join the family shoe biz, returns home to Northampton, England to save Price & Son from bankruptcy after his father suddenly dies. Rather than lay off longtime, devoted employees, he feels obligated to uphold his father’s ethic and try to keep the outmoded enterprise afloat.
When Charlie meets Lola, a feisty drag queen with a sad backstory (is there any other kind?), he discovers an untapped market — a need for eye-popping, thigh-hugging, booty-lifting boots sturdy enough for guys who love to dress as women.
Half-heartedly engaged to a model-pretty real estate agent (Celina Carvajal), Charlie longs to be, as described in one of the more clever lyrics, the “hero who reinvents the heel,” so he reluctantly hires Lola as a designer. The goal is to produce enough flashy footwear in time for a big catwalk show in Milan, but they must jump multiple hurdles to get there.
We know where all this is headed from the get-go. The factory workers, initially resistant to the radical changes, begin to accept working shoulder to shoulder with a drag queen. One burly brute (Daniel Stewart Sherman, who played a laid-off mill worker in “The Full Monty”) is especially outraged.
The bespoke boots, naturally, are freighted with all kinds of obvious symbolism — freedom, individuality, novelty, integrity, and sex. The parallels between Charlie and Lola, both misfits neglected by inflexible fathers, are called out with all the subtlety of a bullhorn.
Lucky for us, both lead roles are in capable hands. The highly appealing Stark Sands (“American Idiot,” “Die, Mommie, Die!”) is perfectly cast as the kindhearted yet fallible everyman. Billy Porter (“Miss Saigon,” “Angels in America”), who looks stunning in Gregg Barnes’ outfits, imbues Lola with a grace and dignity that transcend your run-of-the-mill drag persona.
Clichés notwithstanding, “Kinky Boots” does deliver some bang-up musical numbers. Lauper, in her theatrical debut, has devised a pleasing score of heartfelt ballads and upbeat anthems tinged with pop, rock, soul, disco — even tango.
Mitchell’s dance moves, which sometimes border on the acrobatic and make good use of the factory’s moving conveyor belts, are awesome as ever, though I wonder if the choreography work distracted him from his directorial duties.
Particularly strong are the rousing “Sex Is in the Heel,” a libidinous ode to six-inch stilettos, and the closing number of Act I, “Everybody Say Yeah.” By design, the glittering finale, “Raise You Up/ Just Be,” which showcases Barnes’ gorgeous boots, had the entire house (minus a few crusty critics) on its feet for the curtain call.
Another bright spot is the set by David Rockwell, a triumph of iron latticework doing double duty as the shoe factory interior and a stage for drag shows.
The large, spirited ensemble (the cast numbers 32), mostly portraying weary blue-collar types and a bevy of lean, leggy drag queens, consistently hit their marks throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show. In a breakout performance, the gifted Annaleigh Ashford, as the conflicted factory girl who makes “bad choices” and has a crush on Charlie, adds a burst of comic freshness to the proceedings.
Like it or not, this eager-to-please “Kinky Boots” is chock full of bromides. We are told to stay true to ourselves, find our passion and follow it, don’t cling to the past, accept others for who they are, and dare to step out of our comfort zone. There’s also a tidy lesson about the healing power of forgiveness, not just of others, but of yourself.
And that gruff, burly guy who bullies Lola? What he learns when he, ahem, walks a mile in someone else’s shoes will surprise no one over the age of 14. Which, come to think of it, may be the ideal target audience for this diverting yet — dare I say it? — pedestrian show.