Kinky Boots

Kinky Boots

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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Newsies

Newsies

My college roommate Theresa is the world’s biggest fan of the 1992 Disney film, “Newsies.” The well-loved VHS copy she owns provided the backdrop to many a study-deferring undergrad evening. Motivated by fond reminiscence, as well as a general affinity for Broadway entertainment, I eagerly signed on to review the 2012 Tony Award-winner for Best Score and Choreography.

Those trophies are well-deserved. As my companion for the evening observed, “The dancing alone made it worthwhile. The cast was clearly not hired for acting, but that was some of the best dancing and choreography I have ever seen.” Slipped between the compliments about the fleet-footed crew of the Chicago production lies the problem.

The book, which I was surprised to read was written by four-time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein, is plodding. And although the performers have physical grace and big voices — without exception — thespian skills appear to be a secondary requirement for this show. That’s a shame.

Because as the production’s promotional materials highlight, “Newsies” is “inspired by the real-life ‘Newsboy Strike of 1899,’ when newsboy Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long action against Pulitzer, Hearst and other powerful newspaper publishers.” With important history underpinning the source material — urban poverty, child labor abuses, and robber barons squeezing the already impoverished — the dialogue should feel a little less superficial than it ultimately does.

The film, which introduced much of the world to actor Christian Bale, is of course guilty of this as well (sorry Theresa). But I had hoped the transition to Tony Award-winning stage musical would result in greater heft all around. As already suggested, the original movie score, composed by legends Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, receives a turbo boost with seven new songs including the heartbreaking “Letter from the Refuge.” These new tunes supplement stage-ready barn burners such as “King of New York.”

The choreography from Christopher Gattelli is nothing short of amazing. There’s a scene before intermission where the newsies are each dancing gently atop torn newspaper sheets in faultless chorus. It’s hard not to wonder how many rehearsal injuries were produced to yield the perfect execution of this scene. The agility and acrobatics of the ensemble gives any Cirque du Soleil cast a run for its money. The children in the audience on the evening of the press premiere were enthralled.

I suppose at the end of the day, that’s the usual Disney target audience and “Newsies” is certainly family-friendly entertainment. Adults and devoted theater fans however, may find themselves in need of a little more grit. Particularly given the ripe opportunities offered by a true story of underdog triumph.

Joey Barreiro, who plays newsie hero Jack Kelly in this production, is adorable and exhibits a solid awareness of comedic timing. There’s also dependable, if one-dimensional, performances from Steve Blanchard and Kevin Carolan as historical figures Joseph Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt, respectively. And Aisha de Haas’s portray of Medda Larkin almost made me forget festering anger about the hooker with a heart of gold trope foisted upon the cast’s one and only woman of color. Almost. Her vocal chops are that cutting.

These observations aside, there’s nothing memorable about the acting. Morgan Keene as Katherine is ironically soft and non-threatening for a modern 20th Century woman ready to challenge the male-dominated field of journalism. Stephen Michael Langton, making his national tour debut as nervous union co-founder Davey, shows dramatic promise. I’d like to watch him perform again with more substantive material.

As I’ve already said, I’m aware of “Newsies” family-oriented target audience. However I would argue that “The SpongeBob Musical,” another Summer 2016 Broadway in Chicago offering, pleases the children without forgetting that adults actually buy the tickets. So many layers to that production. I would like to see a couple more added here.

“Newsies” runs through August 7 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.