NealsPaper

All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Kinky Boots — National Tour — Forrest Theatre

untitled (75)Few tours maintain the Broadway quality of a show as much as “Kinky Boots,” the national company of which is camped at Philadelphia’s magnificent and criminally underused Forrest Theatre through May 10 before moving on to Rochester, Memphis, East Lansing, and Grand Rapids.

The fast pace and spirit of the show is intact as well as the effectiveness of the story in which the two main characters, one a shoe manufacturer whose factory producing footwear to last a lifetime is failing, the other a transvestite performer who needs to find a reliable six-inch heel for nightclub and discreet daytime wear.

To a person, Jerry Mitchell’s cast delivers to present a heartfelt show that entertains grandly with a smart score from Cyndi Lauper and a smarter book from Harvey Fierstein, a master at a laugh line and a genius in plotting legitimate sentiment within rollicking comedy. Steven Booth, if anything, surpasses the excellent performance his role’s originator, Stark Sands, gave on Broadway. Booth is a charmer whose broad amiable smile and open ingenuous face bruit honesty and make it no surprise that his character, Charlie, is noble enough to be willing to relinquish his plans for London marketing career to do his duty in regards to the shoe factory his family has run for more than a century in England’s unglamorous north country. The sincerity with which Booth endows Charlie makes it more than usually touching when he faces a crisis and loses his up-till-then well-controlled temper.

Kyle Taylor Parker has larger spiked boots to fill in taking the part originated by the amazing and moving Billy Porter. He does so admirably, giving dimension to his Lola and showing great aplomb as an entertainer and great dignity and panache as man who dresses in flamboyant frocks and glistening spiked shoes.

Together and individually, Booth and Parker provide strong leads that keep this tour of “Kinky Boots” snappy, stylish, and human. Both Charlie and Lola believe they have something to prove and secretly wish the approval of their fathers, Charlie by keeping his factory from going bankrupt, Lola by showing his work and choices are as dignified and justified as anyone else’s. Booth and Parker have the musical theater chops to give their characters zest — I’d nominate Booth as the best dancer on stage even though Charlie can get away with less than the agile Booth generates — and have the acting skill to give Charlie and Lola range that earns our concern and regard. They receive especially fine support by Craig Waletzko as a long-time production manager in the Price Shoe Works, George; Lindsay Nicole Chambers as a factory worker who finally get the attention of the boss she’s admired for a while but who was too preoccupied to notice her; Joe Coots as the bloke who speaks who his fellow laborers and who wants to stereotype Lola; Amelia Cormack in a small but noticeable turn as one of the factory workers vocal about work conditions and sexy men; and Florrie Bagel as one Charlie drives almost to distraction with his penchant for perfection but has a few things to say on a number of subjects.

“Kinky Boots” is fun above all. Even the title is, well, kicky. It promises something out of the ordinary, and it provides it as the knee-length boots, ostensibly designed by Lola but actually the work of Gregg Barnes, give us color, sparkle, and witty patterns to enjoy, Mitchell’s dances rouse us to cheering, Fierstein’s book affords lot of laughs, and both Booth and Parker, particularly Parker, have a stunning eleven o’clock number that shows their mettle as performers and just about stop the show as the audience explodes in approval.

The story of “Kinky Boots” was first seen in a popular 2005 movie written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola. In it we see a recently graduated Charlie disappointing his father by following his chic fiancée to London to pursue a business career away from the dullness of his hometown and the factory, called after all, Price and Son, his Dad expects him to inherit and run with pride. Lola, meanwhile appalls her father, a boxing coach, by skittering around his small town street in red spikes that are almost as high as he is. Jomil Elijah Robinson is especially adorable as displays such joy dancing the width of the Forrest stage and making you wish this particularly tyke had more to do as the show proceeds.

Neither son wants to submit to his father’s dreams or mores over his own. Charlie leaves for London but is barely unpacked when he is summoned back to the hinterlands to assume leadership of Price and son following his father’s sudden death. Lola puts his boxing training and the boots he totes over his shoulder to good use as he’s taunted by toughs en route to the nightclub where he’s the star of a revue that features six other trannies in high-heeled splendor.

“Kinky Boots” is careful to make a distinction between a transvestite, a man who prefers to dress as a woman, and a gay man or transsexual who brings another component to the mix. Lola’s sexuality is rarely addressed. His predilection for fancy femme attire and intrinsic sexiness is. He has the cooing patois of a gay drag queen, but you never see him express desire for or commit to a man or a woman. He’s a lady of his own making, and a man of style when it suits him to shed his wig and don impeccably tailored men’s clothing, but Fierstein doesn’t give him a romantic interest while Charlie has two that represent different parts and different values in his life, the woman who wants a swank life in London and Chambers’s Lauren, who is his conscience at home.

NealBoxCharlie and Lola each have a need the other can satisfy. Charlie has a dying shoe factory. Lola’s heels keep breaking under his weight (and after a few swings as assaulting marauders). One of the people Lola belts with her heels is Charlie, whom she mistakes for a stalker. As Charlie’s jaw is being tended to in Lola’s dressing room, Lola tells him he will be all right, but her heels might not recover from the collision. Charlie takes a look at the heel, and voilá, he sees the problem immediately. He even takes out his cobbling tools and measuring devices, handily stored in his pocket, and does some adjustment that improve Lola’s situation. He takes a pair of Lola’s boots home with him to see what George and Lauren might do further at the factory. What Lauren does is have a brainstorm. Instead of making perpetually sturdy brown brogues no one wants to wear in this disposable, junkwear age, Charlie can salvage his factories and his workers’ jobs by adjusting the equipment to produce boots Lola and her ensemble, called The Angels, can cavort in without worrying about their heels coming out from under them.

Charlie already knows the problem lies in supporting a grown man’s weight. George talks about steel shafts. Other factory hands have other ideas. Business is possible. Not all that’s required is for Lola to agree to design the patterns for the boots and for everyone to develop a market for the new product.

Like most stories labelled comedy or tragedy, “Kinky Boots” is fairly predictable. Even the type and outcome of the conflicts can be guessed with some assurance.

So what? Calling something “predictable” is a lame critic’s out. Except for thrillers, theater isn’t about suspense or surprise. It’s for storytelling and absorbing people in tales about her other solve their dilemmas or get by on their ingenuity.

“Kinky Boots” doesn’t need to astonish. It needs to entertain, and Fierstein, Lauper, and Mitchell mix ingredients deftly and with a sure sense of excitement to keep their audiences delightedly satisfied.

Humor comes from several sources. Lola does not have to bear the comic or musical brunt of the show. Fierstein gives Charlie a knack for turning a phrase of two. Pub camaraderie filters to the Price and Son factory where taunts, jokes, and funny comments abound.

Lauper’s songs add to the enjoyment. You’ll hear the sounds of 80s disco in her score, but that only adds to “Kinky Boot’s” exuberance, and Lauper’s lyrics make a lot of sense and express the freedom and need for intimacy heard in her most popular hit, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fu-un,” and her composition for Madonna, “Time After Time.” Lola’s “Hold Me in Your Heart” is a second act stunner that Parker turns into a personal tour de force, the ovation for which makes you wonder if you’re at a rock concert. Booth also has his special moment in the spotlight with his revealing “Soul of a Man.”

Fierstein, working Dean and Firth’s material, finds ways to keep “Kinky Boots” varied, and the different plot lines and attending dilemmas offer ample opportunities for comedy, sentiment, pragmatism, and human nature to come to the fore. “Kinky Boots” may seem direct, but it actually embraces a lot of complexity as the lives of Charlie’s factory hands and Lola’s angels are contrasted and as sassy flippant London communes with the rawer, raucous dart-playing, beer chugging day-to-day in the north country, Remember, these characters are British, so the patented one-upping of that culture’s humor pervades all settings. Fierstein makes sure all contingents are funny in their own way, so “Kinky Boots” is chocked with laughs, oral and visual.

Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell finds his bounty in all the setting and all the surfaces in which he can stage musical numbers. A conveyor belt is a great way for dancers to enter a stage, especially when those dancers are Lola’s angels modeling their new footwear with a joy and a flair that makes everyone want to share in their fetish. Lola, of course, works in a nightclub, so splashy, shiny presentational numbers, with the angels in exuberant support have a natural place from which to spring. Charlie’s workers are a game group with a song and dance and can express their attitudes and work woes in song. A boxing match between Lola and his chief detractor at Price and Son, Don, leaves another creative outlet for Mitchell as stager and Barnes as costumer.

In addition to music and comedy, conflict arises from many places. There aren’t only squabbles among the factory folk, but Charlie has to contend with his fiancée and his commitment and plans with her and with the various moods of Lola, who needs a lot of stroking to keep her content and happy. Lola likes the idea of having high-quality shoes at her disposal, but she is not patient with guff or disputes about details. She makes it clear she has made a fine living and forged a happy life in nightclubs, and even at nursing homes and similar venues. She doesn’t need Charlie or his shoes as much as Charlie needs Lola’s advice and custom. Lola’s big number, which ends with him kissing his father, suffering from severe dementia on the top of his head provides the kind of emotion you crave from a musical. Charlie’s outburst when he thinks Lola is deserting him, a tirade that includes insults and impugns Lola’s masculinity and relationship to reality, is just as devastating and gives “Kinky Boots” dramatic high points to go with its generally comic tone and benevolent feeling.

Mitchell and his cast tell Fierstein’s story with sparkle that matches the sequins on Lola’s boots. No moment is dull or wasted, All conspires to entertain and show flash and heart in equal, fulfilling doses. Almost everyone is the cast gets a moment to shine, and the principals, while always looking fresh and energetic, must exhaust themselves with the pace and vigor with which they endow their roles.

Because “Kinky Boots” works as well as a play as it does as a musical, it entertains on various levels. It can be glitzy and direct as a snazzy vaudeville turn, with Lola being arch, and she and her angels going from camp to artful. The milieu of the factory has an air of reality as the workers deride, ridicule, provoke, and hack around with each other. Charlie’s scenes with his father or fiancée, Nicola, played with hauteur by Grace Stockdale, create tension as each try to persuade him to something he clearly knows he doesn’t want. Lola has scenes in which he shows she doesn’t want to look or behave like an average person, but he has needs and feelings that are the same of everyone else’s. Drag enhances. It doesn’t necessary disguise one’s need for respect, affection, or understanding.

I don’t want to give the impression that “Kinky Boots” goes too deep or gets too preachy. On the contrary, it emphasizes the independence, individuality, and uniqueness of Lola without forgetting he is a person who needs attention he can’t derive from the stage. Charlie, though usually cheerful and cooperative, is a man beset with responsibilities, decisions, and ambitions that fly in the face of both. It is a credit to “Kinky Boots” that the dramatic struggle the co-protagonists face is defined and given space while the show remains lively and jovial for the most part. Even the most needling gibes Fierstein gives Lola or the factory hands convey personality more than meanness or cruelty. “Kinky Boots” proceeds on a happy plane that doesn’t eschew drama or conflict but resolves it so Mitchell and company can get on with the numbers, sequences, and Lauper songs that make it such a rousing and appealing entertainment.

I fear I was so serious in talking about the various complementary elements in the show, I didn’t give enough credit to how lively, warm, jovial, and exhilarating it is. I have seen “Kinky Boots” twice on Broadway, and this touring rendition captures all of the spirit and gusto of the original. There’s always something to watch, and fun dominates. Lola is an entertainer, and Parker sees to it that he comes across as a first-class talent who knows how to please an audience without pandering to it, or by pandering with a wink in his eye. Charlie is the character who has to come to grips with what and whom he truly wants to be involved, and Booth deals well with the character’s confusion while conveying his innate decency and integrity.

Fierstein’s story leaves lots of room for Lauper’s music, always welcome, and Mitchell’s inventiveness in finding ways his cast, whether angels or factory workers, can dance up a storm on all kinds of platforms and in situations ranging from the conception of the new boots to modeling the finished product on a Milan runway. Exuberance and humanity reign as separate denizens from disparate parts of Britain combine to make everyone’s life more secure and joyful. “Kinky Boots” is a good, wholehearted show that wins your admiration with each smart and animated moment.

Steven Booth engenders the joy “Kinky Boots” conveys. For the most part, his Charlie is an optimist, a friend to his workers, and catalyst to make something wonderful happen from which everyone in London and his hometown can thrive. Booth has boyish spunk that announces Charlie as a mensch with a sense of humor and a work ethic that won’t allow him to quit or abandon his workers to take on another profession he thought he wanted.

Booth’s bright earnestness is enough to boost the confidence of everyone around Charlie. His warm goodness is in his expression and posture. This is a nice guy, and reliable guy, and its Booth, shining through his stage persona that makes Charlie so.

You want to rally around Charlie and his will to make things work. You want to embrace Kyle Taylor Parker’s Lola, thank him for his forthrightness and courage, and make him feel welcome in a larger sphere than London’s drag community. For all the strength, éclat, and swagger Parker gives Lola, he leaves room for vulnerability. As much as Lola can brush off the taunts of a wider world and the intention of some to purposely hurt him for dressing as a woman, he is sensitive and wants approval on some deeper level, the approval his father never granted him and may bestow now only because of dementia (assuming he recognizes Lola as the person who comes to his nursing home to entertain). By working with Charlie and his factory crew, Lola expects acceptance and gratitude. You see Lola dressing to fit in, and Parker standing still, almost in a pose to say, “See, I’m trying in my own way to be conventional for you.” Parker shows how hurt Lola is when Charlie attacks him for the differences he thought his friend and partner understood and took in tolerant, embracing stride.

Booth has to regard his character as a focal figure in a story. His acting may be the talent he puts ahead of all others, but “Kinky Boots” lets Booth demonstrate what a triple threat he is. His singing is sweet, expressive, and purposeful. His dancing is on a par with the most agile ensemble member and has a personal style that conveys Charlie’s happiness at being associated with dedicated, resourceful workers and the flamboyantly encouraging Lola.

Lindsay Nicole Chambers has flair within her normality as the practical but enamored Lauren who eggs Charlie to adapt the factory out of her own sense of preservation — wanting a steady paycheck — but later sees a bigger picture and a bigger role in Charlie’s life.

Grace Stockdale may be a native of Charlie’s hometown, but she had London aspirations and is unwilling to surrender them to renew a relationship with Charlie. Stockdale is good at showing how fed up Nicola with Charlie when he refuses a real estate deal that will rescue him from any financial fallout from his factory’s failure but will keep the Price and Son employees in jeopardy.

Joe Coots is wonderful at being comic while being the roughneck among the Price and Son staff, one who rolls his eyes at the first sight of Lola and comes around when Lola shows his masculine side.

Craig Waletzko is hilariously fussy and has a great way with a one-liner as George, the person who gave Charlie his first taste of seeing how the shoe factory works and who directs him on the right path. Waletzko is canny about the way he shows the one out gay character in “Kinky Boots” is George.

As I say that, it is possible Lola is gay. Harvey Fierstein and Billy Porter say different things about the subject which remains undefined. Lola’s lifestyle and speech pattern usually indicate gay, but I don’t remember anything in Fierstein’s scripts or Parker’s performance that declares Lola’s homosexuality outright. After three times seeing “Kinky Boots” and looking for some deciding line, as opposed to Porter’s performance (which plays gayer than Parker’s), the second time, I still wonder if I missed something conclusive. It’s reasonable, even logical to assume Lola, being a drag queen, is gay, but I would like to find the line that spells it out or settles the conundrum. As if it matters. Maybe that’s the point. Lola is Lola and should be accepted as Lola on her own terms. We don’t need to know her sexual preference. They’re immaterial. She’s an interesting, entertaining drag queen who needs sturdier shoes. That is, as I consider this, enough.

Neither Amelia Cormack nor Florrie Bagel is featured on giving individual billing, but I liked the way Cormack took focus in some numbers, including “In This Corner.” She showed a lot of musical moxie and made me watch and enjoy her. Bagel gets more opportunities to stand up and maximizes every one of them.

Mitchell gets so much mileage from the conveyor belts on David Rockwell’s set, which turns neatly into various other locations, from a London street corner to a pub that stages boxing matches. Gregg Barnes lives a costumer’s fantasy and aces it with his creations for Lola and the angels. He is also straight on as he dresses the factory folk and find the right balance between the formal and the casual for Charlie.

“Kinky Boots” runs through Sunday, May 10, at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $152 to $57 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.

A word about the Forrest Theatre. To my mind, it is the second best standard house in the United States, with only New York’s Majestic Theatre (home for the last 27 years to “The Phantom of the Opera”) eclipsing it. What makes the Forrest so wonderful is the quality of its sight lines, even from the caverns of the balcony. (The fan shape of the orchestra can make an angle or two awkward from the back rows on each side, the stage jutting to the right if you sit house left and vice versa if you sit house right on rows W to Z.) The comfort of the seats and ease of sound, if not overamplified, are other assets. I understand the Kimmel Center and producers of given touring shows might prefer the additional seats they can sell in the Academy of Music, but the Forrest is too often wasted. The Kimmel Center and the venue’s owners, the Shubert Organization, should make a concerted effort (no pun intended) to book it more often or work out a deal with regional theaters to bring successful musicals (like Barrington Playhouse’s current “On the Town” or Goodspeed’s 2010 “Carnival” with Lauren Worsham and Adam Monley) to Philadelphia to extend their lives. The last suggestion is only a modest proposal, but I keep thinking of ways to restore the Forrest to regular life. Oh, when I win that lottery!!! First call will be to Bernard Havard and Mark Sylvester to give them funds to outbid the Kimmel and keep the Forrest open all year round!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: