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.

Live from Hotlanta! It’s Becky Boop! (February 2, 2009)

From time to time, my job as a Manager of Dental Material Standards at the ADA (is everyone still awake?) affords me a travel opportunity. To say that my work is Dullsville is an insult to the residents of that fictional town, but I do try and make the most out of these mini-excursions. Once I went to New York City for a two-day training session on American National Standards: Administration, Publication and Accreditation. I did my best not to stab myself right through the retina with a pen during the course of meetings, and this work was made easier by what I have come to refer to as my favorite solo date: a walk to Times Square where I treated little old me to dinner at one of many local diners, a cocktail or three at a sexy lounge, and a showing of Hairspray featuring enough gay 80s and 90s icons to make one’s head explode – Jim J. Bullock, Lance Bass and Tevin Campbell in one shot? I waited only for a walk-on by RuPaul to make my fantasy complete.

Today I find myself in Atlanta. Or not so much Atlanta as a suburb. Or not so much a suburb as an industrial park in the middle of nowhere, where I am esconced in a Courtyard Marriott until 9:15 AM tomorrow morning. That’s when my shuttle bus will pick me up and whisk me away to the glamorous ANSI ISO Member Forum! (shouted like Rod Roddy unveiling a pop-up camper to a Showcase Showdown contestant). At this point, it appears that my dinner options consist of the bags of peanuts I swiped from the first class cabin of my American Airlines flight, or something called Order Inn Hospitality Services. In addition to loathing this vendor for the cutesiness of their name, I resent any attempt to sell me bar food and call it cuisine. But that’s the South for you (as well as the Courtyard Marriott).

It would seem I am in for a dull night, but at least I am consoled my own state of Tears on the way here (a term originally coined by my sister, but in 2000, carrying a negative connotation). A state of Tears is achieved when one is so taken aback by their own fabulousness that the shock can only be expressed through the release of a good crying fit. Without a violent outburst of emotion, when one is in a state of Tears, there is liable to be some form of tectonic shift, resulting in a tsunamni or hurricane situation heaped upon an unsuspecting villager. Therefore, one must pause to recognize these little situations where one’s own chutzpah and personality transcends the genric nature of a situation. Such a moment occurred for me today as I reached O’Hare airport in Yellow Cab.

It is a sign of these troubling economic times that I left for the aiport at 9:00 AM and had the highway to myself. The airport had the foot traffic level of a Sunday afternoon, and my 11:40 AM flight had plenty of room. I was so early for my flight that I was offerred the chance to upgrade to first class for a mere $90. Score! They were going to charge me $15 to check my bag anyway, so I looked at the additional $75 as an investment in a better nap, the possibility of real food and best of all….liquor. I believe at this point it is a well-known fact that the generally accepted “blue law” of not drinking before noon is comfortably waived in the following circumstances: St. Patty’s Day, one’s birthday, a bikini wax appointment, and all activities related to air travel.

My seat was now 6F, a window in the back of the first class cabin. I was snuggled under a fluffly red blankie and waited for the free swag! To my utter disappointment, my fellow first class travelers appeared unaware of the waiving of the blue law. When offerred pre-flight beverages, they chose the mundane coffee, soda, etc. Not wanting to boldly advertise my own shameless air drunkeness, I compromised with a mimosa (Hey! There’s orange juice right?). I resented the inclusion of any liquid I could have gotten in coach for free, but I was not about to let a little bit of teetotaling by my seatmates ruin my party. Once we were safely in air, the air hostess brought me my first huge glass of red wine, and thankfully, kept them coming.

I passed out, er fell asleep, about 30 minutes before we landed. I woke up right around the time we touched the runway in Atlanta, nearly sleeping through an opportunity to wipe a small amount of red colored drool from my cheek. I called my husband, as promised, the moment I landed and deplaned. As I raced around for the nearest hole in the ground where I could vacate my wine soaked bladder, I dialed with the free hand that wasn’t clutching futilely at my lower abdomen. My husband listened to the first few syllables of out of breath slurring before correctly concluding, “You got first class? Oh baby!”

Is it any wonder I married this man?