curtain call

A retrofitted ‘Kinky Boots’ looks fabulous but doesn’t quite work

Kinky Boots Off-Broadway
Callum Francis (center) in ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matt Murphy/MurphyMade.

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond.

The Rundown:

Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots returns, this time to Off-Broadway, in a recycled production that attempts to address queer language and perceptions, which have evolved since the show’s 2013 Broadway opening. Unfortunately, sequins, thigh-high boots, and a stellar cast distract from a storyline that confusingly melds trans and drag identities to create a head-scratching premise that turns a failing shoe factory into one that manufactures for niche market “trans dressers.”

Related: From Broadway to burlesque, San Francisco’s queer theater scene has it all

No Tea, No Shade:

After crossing paths during a street brawl, Lola (Callum Francis), a “heterosexual transvestite with a killer voice and winning ways,” joins forces with Charlie (Christian Douglas), the heir to a failing shoe factory in Northampton, England, to save the business by shifting its production line from standard footwear to products for a different kind of consumer.

Kinky Boots Off-Broadway
Christian Douglas, left, and Callum Francis in ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy / MurphyMade.

“If you trans-dressers are all around, like you say, then maybe you’re the niche market we need,” Charlie says to Lola. “Everyone makes boots for different sized feet. But who makes them for different sized customers?” 

But Lola isn’t buying what Charlie’s selling, encouraging the novice to elevate his design aesthetic, singing one of Kinky Boots’ catchiest riffs: “The sex is in the heel even if you break it. The sex is in the feel, honey you can’t fake it.”

Lola’s creativity is lifted from the drag world, where a sensible shoe means a six-inch heel and patent leather climbing up to the nether regions — not exactly the market for the one-third of trans workers in the U.K. discriminated against by potential employers. One might argue that Lola’s designs filter down from Milan’s fashion icons, much like the cerulean blue sweater referenced by Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. (Another movie-to-musical headed to Broadway this season.)

If audiences are willing to skip over the wide schism that permeates the plot, Kinky Boots retains the feel-good sentiment it first garnered when Billy Porter originated the role of Lola/Simon. Francis as Lola 2.0 is just as enigmatic as Porter’s Tony-winning performance, with Douglas providing a tightly wound pop tenor counterpoint.

Cyndi Lauper’s score, infused with hummable melodies and funky, synthesizer-heavy arrangements by Stephen Oremus, maximizes the six-person orchestra. David Rockwell’s scaled-down scenic design fails to capture the depth and detail of the original, but Gregg Barnes’s over-the-top costumes are back in full force. At the helm, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell stays faithful to the musical that played over 2,500 performances during its original Broadway run, though he hasn’t given much room for the rest of the cast to make the roles their own.

Callum Francis Kinky Boots
Callum Francis (far right) and the cast of ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matt Murphy / MurphyMade

Let’s Have a Moment:

Some might also be flummoxed that Fierstein wrote Lola as straight (a point that Porter disagreed with in a 2013 interview). Though the character doesn’t have a love interest, the perception indicates otherwise, despite an exchange with Don (Sean Steele), an antagonistic factory worker:

“You tryin’ to tell me you ain’t tarted up to get blokes?” Don asks. 

“Why would I do that?” Lola responds. “Blokes that fancy blokes fancy blokes.”

“Do you like women?” he presses.

“I adore them. I worship them. My whole being is dedicated to loving them and they love me right back,” Lola retorts. 

More successful is Fierstein’s exploration between fathers and sons and how — no matter whether we’re supported or rejected, gay or straight, trans or cis — reclaiming or releasing a parent’s approval is one of life’s most vulnerable moments.

Callum Francis Kinky Boots
Callum Francis in ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matt Murphy / MurphyMade

The Last Word:

Setting up shop at Stage 42, an Off-Broadway theatre approximately one-third the size of Kinky Boots’ original home at the Al Hirschfeld, it’s unclear why lead producers Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig resurrected the musical. Besides the profit, of course.

The irony is that Kinky Boots is about more than money. Charlie declines a proposition to convert the factory into high-end condominiums, saying desperately to his girlfriend, “I’m asking you to have a bit of faith.”

With LGBTQ rights facing an uphill battle in the wake of the pandemic and forthcoming midterm elections, faith is a hot commodity right now. And while it may not be the perfect fit, if Lola is selling, plenty of people will buy.

 

Kinky Boots is running through February 12, 2023, at Stage 42 in New York City.