Because I have apparently spent the last four years living in a musical theater trunk, I knew shockingly little about six-time 2013 Tony Award-winner “Kinky Boots.” With keen interest I was aware that the show is scored by 1980s pop music legend Cyndi Lauper and that the plot has something to do with shoes. Touring productions have passed through Chicago several times but somehow I always missed them.
I am pleased to report that this bit of Broadway ignorance has been rectified. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, “Kinky Boots” is back in town at the Oriental Theatre for a limited one-week engagement. Fierstein, who recently disappointed me with the one-dimensional Disney musical “Newsies,” returns to fine narrative form with the story of Charlie Price and Lola. The plot summary per press materials is as follows:
“Charlie Price is struggling to live up to his father’s expectations and continue the family business of Price & Son. With the factory’s future hanging in the balance, help arrives in the unlikely but spectacular form of Lola, a fabulous performer in need of some sturdy new stilettos.”
This is accurate and yet, as opposed to the oversimplified “Newsies,” “Kinky Boots” is full of loaded, complicated questions. Can legacy craftsman stay alive in the modern commercial world of outsourcing? How are the relationships between fathers and sons shaped by expectation and ambition? And what exactly does it mean to “be a man?”
Not all of these queries are given clear answers and that’s as it should be. What the source material and strong performances do assert however is that manhood is actually a wide variety of profiles in courage, personalized for every individual. And Lola, a trained prize fighter, loving human and drag queen extraordinaire defies all stereotype to present an engrossing, complex, emotional portrait of maleness.
While Billy Porter originated the role on Broadway, Lord have mercy J. Harrison Ghee. The actor, best known for a regional production of “The Color Purple” is a force of nature. Stunningly good looking, powerful of movement and with a soaring, gorgeous voice reminiscent of a young Luther Vandross, this is Ghee’s stage and he knows how to command it. The artist is no slouch in the dramatic department either. Just try not to weep at the conclusion of “Hold Me in Your Heart” toward the end of the second act.
The cast is not as uniformly and uniquely gifted as Ghee. Adam Kaplan’s Charlie is cute and likeable, but the performance is a quick, pleasant consumption, unlikely to stay with the audience longer than it takes to process the sugar rush. And it’s kind of hard to understand why stage and television screen icon Jim J. Bullock would undertake the largely throwaway role of George, the Price family accountant. He has a couple of good moments but his larger-than-life “Too Close for Comfort” personality is buried under a frumpy costume and rote dialogue.
Tiffany Engen, as dedicated Price employee and Charlie-smitten Lauren fares much better. She is a talented physical comedienne who uses every millimeter of her short stature to project an endearing, quirky foil to Charlie’s social-climbing, materialistic fiancée Nicola (Ellen Marlow).
As for Lola’s parade of “Angels,” a chorus of drag amazingness embodied by Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes and Sam Rohloff, there’s almost literally no words. Their physiques, costumes, acrobatics, sass, and strut are both an extension of Lola and a magnificent entertainment standalone. The musical numbers that conclude both acts — “Everybody Say Yeah” and “Raise You Up/Just Be” — would have much less punch without this group of rhythmic, sexy performances.
Cyndi Lauper earned every piece of metal that went into creating her Tony Award for Best Score. Each carefully crafted tune is a catchy, touching story, seamlessly serving plot movement while working just as well as party playlist addition. The soundtrack will be on my holiday gift list this year.
There are some minor details with which a critic could quibble. The second act argument between Charlie and Lola feels a bit contrived and some of the rural England factory characters are shallowly drawn. But really, who cares? “Kinky Boots” is one hell of a show. Chicagoans are encouraged to catch it before it sashays back out of town.
“Kinky Boots” runs through September 4 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.