As the vivacious drag queen Lola, Darius Harper delivers a starmaking performance in “Kinky Boots.”
Billy Porter made a big splash originating the sassy role on Broadway two years ago, and won a Tony. Harper had big shoes to fill, so to speak, in this first national tour. Not to worry — he’s sensational, giving it all he’s got.
Unfortunately, the rest of the show isn’t as good as he is. Harper is the standout by far.
While this production has a few inspired, uplifting moments and several energetic dance numbers, the story is a lukewarm rehash of “Hairspray,” “Billy Elliot the Musical,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” When it comes to gender-bending modern works based on movies, why are we repeatedly spoon-fed sampler platters of Broadway’s greatest hits? Doesn’t anyone crave originality over familiarity?
Charlie Price (Steven Booth) inherits his dad’s shoe factory during a tough economic period in a working class town in England. By chance, he meets Lola, a drag queen, and an idea is hatched. Provide sturdy yet flamboyant boots for a niche market and save the business.
Based on a true story and adapted from a 2005 little-seen film, “Kinky Boots” has an appealing blue-collar vibe, and showcases a cast of various body types to reflect real people. That’s refreshing, and crowd-pleasing.
In execution, its noble message is reduced to greeting card platitudes: Be who you are. Changing your way of thinking can make a difference. Other than fancy footwear as a plot point, the story offers nothing new and appears to be put together on an automated assembly line.
The conflicts are predictable — telegraphed loudly by stereotypical characters.
There’s the misunderstood guy in women’s clothing, a bigoted brute who causes commotions in the factory, struggling employees who believe in the company’s future, a self-absorbed fiance, dads who expected too much out of sons, and a do-or-die moment. Yawn. Then everything is neatly wrapped up in a blaze of glory — a gaudy anthemic finale “Raise You Up/Just Be.”
I expected more from Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book, and Cyndi Lauper, who crafted the music. Oh, there are glimmers of wit and warmth, of course, and some of Lauper’s songs have a good beat, yet others have a gooey emotional center, but they felt generic — put a ballad here, insert an upbeat pop number there.
The score didn’t connect with me, as I thought it would since I am a fan of Lauper’s music. The sound system Tuesday was sub-par, which unfortunately happens more frequently on opening nights. The orchestra was often louder than the performer, who would be singing his heart out, but I couldn’t distinguish any lyric.
The show’s best number is “The History of Wrong Guys,” which is sung winningly by Lindsay Nicole Chambers, strong as Lauren, potential love interest for the bland fourth generation company owner. Her character, while memorable, is under-used.
The rousing production number, “Sex Is In the Heel,” is a thoroughly enjoyable way to end Act I, but as the cliche-riddled second act sags, one just hopes the inevitable conclusion isn’t too long in coming. A powerful “Hold Me in Your Heart” is a wow moment for Harper, yet diminished by its staging. We can guess the reveal the minute the scene starts.
Outside of Harper, Gregg Barnes’ costumes — and dazzling boots — are the real stars here. Think about it: Inanimate objects connect more than the characters.
Original director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who graduated from Webster University and obtained his Equity card at The Muny, did move the show along with snappy steps, and the touring cast sells the sizzle. Nevertheless, this Tony winner ultimately seemed empty, like biting into a chocolate Easter bunny and discovering it has a hollow inside.