Friday, December 15, 2017
Stage

Review: 'Kinky Boots' more sparkle than plot, but Cyndi Lauper's score kicks it high

TAMPA — In a way, Charlie Price is more than the latest in a line of family owners of a struggling shoe company. The young protagonist in Kinky Boots, the Harvey Fierstein-Cyndi Lauper musical now at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, feels a bit like the last shoemaker in England.

Since a 2005 movie by the same name, we've been told Kinky Boots is based on a true story. And it is, sort of, except that the drag queen who whips Price and Son into shape, challenging everyone's prejudices in the process, never existed. The plot needed such a character, and J. Harrison Ghee, who plays the role in the touring production, virtually carries the show.

Challenging prejudices is not exactly a new concept, as Fierstein famously did with his La Cage aux Folles, so any production covering that same ground, with the same set of formulas, would be wise to include a new wrinkle. Kinky Boots is a mostly lighthearted effort to extend gender fluidity to everyone, embodied in song lyrics to "just be."

The show flirts with themes such as change, identity and the perils of satisfying others' expectations at the expense of your own. But in a fast-paced musical loaded with song and dance, no one has much time to go into all of that. With the exception of one song between Charlie and Lola, Not My Father's Son, character development is more suggestion than substance, a fragrance sprayed into the air.

People fall in love after a paragraph of spoken words. The most obtusely retro male in the factory, nicely played by Aaron Walpole, gives Lola what amounts to momentary pushback in her — and Charlie's — plan to manufacture flamboyant, thigh-high boots for men. But in the fast-forwarded world of the Broadway stage, he comes around before you can hit the pause button.

Dialogue, especially in the first act, serves as a bridge to connect songs. (The same could be said for any number of musicals today, but I'm not sure how much of a defense that really is.)

So while the show might symbolize many social dynamics, the musical is without question about one thing.

Those boots.

Charlie's idea is to turn his fourth-generation factory into a niche provider of steel-reinforced boots for drag performers that can support a man's weight. A chance meeting with a former professional boxer who goes by the stage name Lola inspired it. He recruits Lola (real name Simon) to work with him as a designer. That the offer of a consulting job constitutes the most critical turning point says something about the plot — what that is I'm not sure, but it's not great.

How, then, does Kinky Boots turn out to be such a feel-good hit, winning a Tony award as the best musical of 2013, packing the Straz on opening night?

Costumes, lighting and choreography all play a part. But bold performances and a fun, jaunty score by Lauper are what push the show over the top. As Lola, Ghee takes the show to another level from his energetic entrance (Land of Lola). In place of dramatic plot moments, we wonder what stunning outfits Lola (or sometimes Simon, when he dresses male) will be wearing next. His rendition of Sex Is in the Heel sets the tone for the show's foot-related themes. He can drop his voice from a trilling falsetto to baritone on a moment's whim in a way that is not hammy. The audience eats it up.

Adam Kaplan, as Charlie, is something of an enigma. The character is compromised by demands from all sides, including financial pressures and an overbearing fiancé, his journey from milquetoast acquiescence to strength. The actor should not come across as milquetoast, but too often, Kaplan does.

No matter. He still carries off a credible enough Charlie. Credit for keeping Kinky Boots on an energetic upswing as the musical moves through two acts also goes to Tiffany Engen, who plays Charlie's love interest, and an impressive cast of "Angels," Lola's back-up performers, who manage jump splits and a backwards somersault or two — not to mention considerable charm — in stiletto heels.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

 
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