Theater review:

'Kinky Boots' provides a lift at the Hippodrome

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The be-yourself message is laid on thicker than the mascara, but "Kinky Boots" is uplifting fun.

Is there really room for one more Broadway musical based on a movie about working-class blokes in a depressed part of England trying to figure a way out of their troubles? You bet your high heels there is.

"Kinky Boots," which arrived at the Hippodrome Tuesday night with a padded chest full of Tony Awards, may not avoid cliches, but it still manages to exude freshness, thanks to a good story, good songs and a terrific cast.

The plot derives from the case of an actual shoe factory that came back from the brink of shut-down when it switched gears and started manufacturing snazzy footwear for drag artists and "trans-gentry" (as one character puts it).

Like the 2005 film version, this version gets great mileage from the invented character of a tough-as-needed drag queen named Lola, who accidentally inspires the factory's flip. The presence of such an exotic type generates the inevitable tensions and the equally expected discovery of common ground.

Until someone makes a musical version of the 2014 movie "Pride" — that true story of gay activists from London going all solidarity with striking miners in Wales is bound to get a stage treatment — "Kinky Boots" should have the culture-clashes-with-happy-endings-in-myriad-British-accents market cornered for a long time.

The show, with a book by the seasoned Harvey Fierstein, has it bumps. Parts of the story line feel awfully abrupt or contrived; the Act 2 appearance of Lola's father is especially awkward, suggesting the remnant of what was meant to be a much meatier scene.

Still, the principal characters develop multiple dimensions effectively, and the emotional ups-and-downs are vividly realized. It's hard not to feel a magnetic pull toward the climactic moment when those wonderfully kinky, slinky, thigh-hugging boots are about to be unveiled at a major shoe fest in Milan.

Too bad, then, that the finale dissolves into a string of messages laid on thicker than Lola's mascara: "Learn something new"; "Accept yourself and you'll accept others, too"; "Let love shine"; "Let pride be your guide." Such terribly obvious points have already been made so well that all the clobbering at the end undercuts the rest of the musical.

Such thoughts are kicked away easily enough, though, by the sight of Jerry Mitchell's exuberant choreography and the sounds of yet another rousing number by Cyndi Lauper, whose first Broadway score is more ear-catching than some turned out in recent years by veterans of the genre.

For the most part, she delivers the melodic goods, nowhere more tellingly than in "Charlie's Soliloquy," sung by the conflicted factory owner to a tune distantly related to Lauper's vintage hit "Time After Time." And "The History of Wrong Guys," a solo for Lauren, the factory worker who falls for Charlie, is a comic showpiece in the best Broadway tradition.

As for Lauper's lyrics, well, it does seem a wee bit lazy to build an Act 1 finale largely out of "yeah, yeah." And it's hard to overlook the clunkiness of trying to rhyme "hubris" and "chooses" — or of using "hubris" at all in a song. But, more often than not, the words get the job done as neatly as the music.

"Kinky Boots" couldn't have much more persuasive advocates than those in the touring cast. As witty and wise Lola, Kyle Taylor Parker proves every bit as satisfying as originator Billy Porter, right down to the Eartha Kitt-on-steroids purring. It's worth catching the show just to hear Parker say, with profound and hilarious contempt, the word "burgundy" (the first color choice for a boot presented to him at the factory). He's also a sturdy, warmly expressive singer.

Steven Booth deftly conveys Charlie's journey from ambivalence to confidence, reaching a peak in the angry outbursts of Act 2. The actor handles humorous bits with equal flair. His voice is a little too light for the more driving rock songs in the score, but his phrasing invariably rings true.

Among the supporting players, Lindsay Nicole Chambers stands out as Lauren, offering a funny array of vocal inflections. She even manages to make some of the most cliched lines in the script sound natural. As Don, the bully who gets his comeuppance, Joe Coots hits the spot. And the gang of Angels, Lola's fellow drag performers, could not be much more assured or stylish. Likewise, the ensemble of factory workers couldn't look more true-to-life.

David Rockwell's large, richly evocative scenic design and Gregg Barnes' spot-on costumes complete the appeal of this well-polished production.

"Kinky Boots" runs through Oct. 4 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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