Kinky Boots: Predictable But With Loads of Charm and Showbiz Know-How

Darius Harper as Lola
Darius Harper as Lola
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The set-up: The rousing, boisterous Act I finale to the Tony award-winning Kinky Boots is a non-stop, perpetual mobile of high kicks and swirling stage action, set to Cyndi Lauper's triumphant feel-good disco anthem, "Everybody Say Yeah." It raises the roof. Set in a shoe factory and making the utmost out of the conveyor belt assembly line, the number is the ultimate in show-stopping stagecraft, as the entire cast romps, runs in place, or sweeps along the moving runway. A new pair of boots has made a star turn - lipstick red, patent leather, thigh-high, with stratospheric stiletto heels. The fetish wear shoes, the prototype designed by drag queen Lola, glisten and sparkle in the spot light. They shoot off sparks.

Against all odds, will they will save Charlie's failing shoe business, keep the old factory alive, and bond the old school to the new? Will the gruff, lower class male workers come to love flamboyant Lola? Will drag queens eventually rule the world? You bet your ass!

The execution: I ask these questions, even though the show's outcome is never in doubt. There's not a single surprise to be had in this entertaining, manufactured musical. Life flows across the footlights, but it's so embalmed under layers of previous shows that there's nothing original in it. It's paint-by-numbers with all plot points duly checked off. Drag queen with daddy issues? Check. Homophobic factory workers who will see the error of their ways? Check. Mousy co-worker who catches the eye of the hero? Check. Hero and drag queen say horrible things to each other to ramp up drama in Act II? Check.

Plastered all over the place are Hallmark truisms: accept someone for who they are; be true to yourself; change your mind and you change the world. These needlepoint samplers might certainly be true, but they've passed their sell-by date decades ago, thanks to pioneering forebears such as La Cage aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and even Billy Elliot. Kinky Boots is stuck in the '80s.

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Now this isn't the worst place to be stuck in, especially when Lauper's music is so infectious and bouncy. This is a surprisingly adroit Broadway debut, her score filled with dancey tunes and heartfelt ballads. I can't comment on her talents as lyricist, though, because I strained all evening to make sense of what was said on stage. The cavernous Hobby Center is notorious for its dead sound quality, and no audio designer as yet has been able to conquer it, but this show is garbled, muffled, and terribly tinny. Even the dialogue passages are difficult to understand. Somebody has got to fix this!

The show's other saving grace is veteran director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who puts the highest gloss on everything. Even the sequins have sequins. This is four-star staging, a master class with impeccable pace and timing. Boots kicks up its high heels as if on parade. Darius Harper makes a most handsome man in drag - he looks pretty spiffy in a suit, too - Eartha Kitt with a lot of Ru Paul. Feisty and fiery, ready with a quip, he's a festive show all by himself. He's d'lovely. Steven Booth's nebbish Charlie is no match for Lola in the personality department, but he holds his own with his pop star wail of a voice. Lindsay Nicole Chambers stops the show with her comic lament "The History of Wrong Guys," where she begins to fall for the boss, much to her own surprise and glee.

The verdict: Kinky Boots carries its heart on its sleeve. Programmed to be cute and meaningful but not offend anyone, the show has loads of charm and razor-sharp show-biz know how. Although saddled with "been there, done that," when Lauper does it, it all seems somehow new and sparkly. Girls just wanna have fun, she sang in her hit song ages ago. In eight-inch heels, she's having the time of her life - again.

Kinky Boots continues through February 22 at Theatre Under the Stars. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $24-$100.


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