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Review: Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein Don Their “Kinky Boots”

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Matthew Murphy
    Sands, left, and Porter. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets: in this case, it’s a pair of sexy stilettos manufactured by unlikely business partner Charlie Price.

    If you’re going to stage a musical about fathers and sons, expectations and disappointment, you couldn’t ask for more promising shepherds than rock icon Cyndi Lauper and four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein.

    Separately, each has created some of the more affirming material in the self-acceptance canon (think “True Colors,” and “La Cage aux Folles”). What the duo has conjured together in “Kinky Boots,” which has just opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is a vibrant, if choppy tale about carving your own identity, with bold, brassy music that delivers on its promise, and a story that, like so much from this genre, is often predictable.

    Inspired by a 2005 film, “Kinky Boots” introduces us to its main players, Charlie Price (a game, every-guy Stark Sands, of “American Idiot”) and Lola (Billy Porter, of “Grease” and the 20th anniversary concert of “Dreamgirls”) in a prologue, with young actors briefly adopting the roles. Charlie, the son of a Northampton shoe factory owner, listens to his father explain that the most beautiful thing in the world is a shoe, though the boy himself is not much interested in footwear. Young Lola (still “Simon” as a boy), meanwhile, cherishes the beauty firsthand: When we meet her, she’s sitting on a bench, slipping on a pair of red high-heels. That affection for women’s wear brings a harsh warning from his disgusted dad: “Take those things off your feet ... stupid boy!” 

    When we encounter Charlie again, we’ve bolted forward 20 years, via some clever staging by director Jerry Mitchell. Charlie’s inherited the business after his father’s death, and finds it on the verge of bankruptcy. Through a chance run-in with Lola, the prodigal son is inspired to rescue the factory by manufacturing top-quality footwear for the underserved drag queens of the world. “Price & Son spent the last century making a range of shoes for men,” Charlie explains to his confused employees, a less-gruff version of the rabble-rousing miners in “Billy Elliot.” “We will begin this century making a range of shoes for a range of men.”

    Lauper, the trailblazing ’80s pop star making her Broadway debut with the “Kinky” score, has stressed that she wrote, then rewrote the catchy songs to fit the voice of each character. That commitment is evident in fabulous pieces such as “The Soul of a Man,” Charlie’s emotional second-act solo, which Sands invests with the sort of vanity-free passion that’s the province of leading men. Equally delightful was “The History of Wrong Guys,” delivered with comic fury by the awesome Annaleigh Ashford (“Legally Blonde”), as the factory worker we know from too early on will become Charlie’s love interest. “Everybody Say Yeah,” which has both shoes and drag queens rolling off an assembly line, is as rousing a spectacle as you’re likely to find on Broadway this season. Still another worthy confection, the hook-heavy “Sex Is in the Heel,” climbed the Billboard dance charts all the way to the Top 10 last fall.

    Fierstein’s book, by contrast, is a study in his personal evolution with drag. The playwright says the questions he’s interested in this go-around are about exploring what it means to be a man. In doing so, he presents us with characters who question the notion, such as tough-guy factory worker Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who is threatened by Lola and her self-confidence. Even Charlie hits a momentary spot of self-doubt, telling Lola: “You think you’re being all mystical and deep, representin’ the best of both sexes, but I’m here to tell you, all you are is daft.” Neither of these conventions challenge us, because we're inured to them in a musical like this. To boot, after their initial introduction, Lola bids Charlie adieu to wow her waiting nightclub audience: “There’s a roomful of people who need to feel normal by comparison,” she says. Thanks to people like Fierstein himself, author of “La Cage...” and “Torch Song Trilogy,” the audience at “Kinky Boots” already buys Lola as “normal” to begin with. They accept a drag queen as a man; consequently, there isn't much that's "new" or surprising about Lola.

    As well, we know from the outset that Charlie isn’t meant to be with Nicola (Celina Carvajal), his ill-matched fiance, just as we know that Charlie will take over the family business and turn it into a success. The Milan fashion show finale may not hold any revelations, but it sure is a treat to watch.

    Sands, most recently seen on TV's underrated “NYC 22,” is sincere and winning as Charlie, the mostly vanilla hero. Porter, an outsized talent who deserves all the adulation this role will bring him, is the center of attention in every scene he’s in, whether dressed as a woman or a man. Both actors are wonderful in the poignant duet “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” a ballad about stepping out from your father’s shadow. Lola’s “Angels,” the drag queens who ride her fashionable coattails, are a confident, acrobatic and convincing congregation (witness the conversations around me at a performance this week: “Wait. Can that one really be a guy?”)
     
    Sands and Porter may headline the musical, but the other stars are the over-the-knee stilettos, conjured by costume designer Greg Barnes in assorted shades and stripes, and brought to life by cobblers here and in Italy. David Rockwell’s set, with its colorful oversized windows, makes the workplace feel like something Willy Wonka might have built. It’s “Charlie and the Shoe Factory.”

    “Kinky Boots” has a lot in common with the recent Broadway hit “Priscilla,” a musical that, coincidentally, features Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Both have over-the-top costumes, captivating production numbers and a message of self-acceptance -- somebody, cue a CeCe Peniston song, please. Here, the boots may be kinky, but the story’s not quite sexy enough to provide a lasting turn-on.

    “Kinky Boots,” at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th St., for an open-ended run. Tickets: $57-$137, at the box office, or online at Telecharge.com. Call 800-432-7250.

    Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn