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Kinky Boots

By Liz Wollman


Young Charlie Price (Stark Sands) of Northampton, England, has just unwillingly inherited his family’s struggling shoe factory. His girlfriend wants him to sell it to a condominium developer and move to London, where they can live a properly upwardly mobile life. Torn between his family obligations and his desire to do something other than run a shoe factory, Charlie meets a drag queen named Lola (born Simon; played by Billy Porter), who happens to break a heel and mention that he would do anything for a better-made pair of fabulous boots to wear during drag performances. Will the two team up and save Charlie’s struggling shoe factory by serving a small but loyal drag-queen niche market? Will Charlie realize that his girlfriend Nic (Celina Carvajal) is a materialistic jerk who doesn’t truly appreciate him for who he is? Will he end up meeting a much nicer girl with better values? Will Lola/Simon teach lots of people about what it means to be a real man in the process? Will these two very different men become the best of best buddies? Will everyone learn something valuable about themselves and others by the curtain call?

Puh-lease. You have to ask?

Photo credit: Bruce Glikas
There are all sorts of reasons to dislike Kinky Boots. It has a totally predictable plot. Its messages about love and acceptance are well meaning, if heavy-handed and sort of trite. For all its gender commentary, it’s ultimately a very traditional bromance that relegates even the most talented women to the sidelines. It has some seriously wooden scenes, forced lines, and dumb lyrics. It is yet another musical based on a movie. It’s pretty fluffy and forgettable, all told.

All of these reasons help explain why I was so genuinely stunned by how much I enjoyed Kinky Boots. It’s flawed, sure, whatever. It’s also charming, cute, and just so, so, so enjoyable. I saw an early preview and found that the cast was already quite strong. I hope the show brings Porter the attention he deserves. What’s more, though, is how completely representative Kinky Boots is of its fabulous, lovable, wonderful creators (Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper). You never catch a glimpse of either of them during the show, and yet they — and especially Lauper — steal every single scene.

I set out to hate the musical because, let’s face it, I am cynical and oppositional, especially when it comes to rock musicals, which this sort of, kind of is. And yet, by intermission, Kinky Boots had turned my sour mood around. By the curtain call, I was surreptitiously wiping tears from my eyes.

This is not to say that I don’t stand by my criticisms of the show, and especially my concerns about what it — and Broadway in general — says of late about gender dynamics. For the stage musical’s traditional embrace of difference, and its advocacy of social acceptance –a lways a good thing — I find myself increasingly concerned that such overarching messages are compensating for a serious shift in focus toward heteronormative male characters. Lola may be in drag, and Charlie may be a guileless guy from the sticks, but the show is almost entirely about the ways they assert their normative masculinity. Of the two women prominently featured in the show, one is the above mentioned materialistic social climber — the stereotypical evil witch, as gentle is her treatment, here. The other is a truly goofy, unbelievably fantastic factory worker named Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), who has eyes for Charlie, impeccable comic timing, and some of the best stage presence I’ve seen in a long time. I wanted more of her, but alas, both Lauren and Nic serve primarily to help the male leads learn valuable lessons about themselves and others. I’d let this go, but there are so many other shows on Broadway about male bonding at the expense of female characters that I can only imagine Ethel Merman and Mary Martin spinning in their graves.

Yet all my concerns about on-stage erasure are matched by an equally strong tug of proto-feminist nostalgia. I love Harvey Fierstein, sure, and could hear his gravelly, reassuring voice behind many of the best lines in the show. But the even louder voice was that of Cyndi Lauper, whose squinty eyes, wacky outfits, and squeaky, nasal, Queens-bred voice insinuated itself into just about every song her characters sang.

The airwaves of my childhood were dominated by Michael Jackson, and Prince, and Madonna — and the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones and INXS and the Human League and… you get the idea. But really, in a lot of ways, the weirdest and most wonderfully reassuring presence was that of Lauper. Sure, she dressed in unbelievably bizarre fashions and her hair was dazzlingly strange. Yeah, her sharp, nasal Queens accent could cut glass. and she hung out with wrestlers who put their beards in lots of small ponytails. But Lauper was just so…unusual, even at a time when being unusual was the key to celebrity. Her star paled in comparison with Madonna’s, with whom she was in most direct competition. And yet in a lot of ways, Lauper’s messages about gender acceptance and remaining true to oneself regardless of the consequences resonated in ways that Madonna’s did not. Madonna was the brilliant marketing machine; she was a force of nature, but she was dead serious about it. Lauper — like most teenagers — was funnier, more impulsive, less carefully crafted. After all, she just wanted to have fun — and not get bullied or beat up or grounded in the process. I loved her. I never shaved my head or liked wrestlers or wore a garbage dress, but I understood her, liked her, accepted her. And on some level, even as a kid, I appreciated that, were we to meet, she would have accepted me, too.

And therein lies the rub. I enjoyed Kinky Boots because I could hear Lauper throughout it. And for all my concerns about the erasure of women on the musical stage, Lauper’s voice came through loud and clear. It always has, I guess. I was awfully glad to hear it again, after all these years, and I suspect that the show will do well for a number of reasons. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s moving, and it has a strong, independent, thoroughly bizarre woman behind it. Take that, heteronormative bromance! Go forth, Kinky Boots! Charm the masses, and in the process, please let your composer and lyricist conquer.

Elizabeth L. Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City and The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig. She also contributes to the Show Showdown blog.

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