Kinky Boots Kicks Up Some Familiar High Heels; Buyer and Cellar Prowls Barbra's Mall

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I'd probably be able to discuss Kinky Boots (Hirschfeld Theatre) much more lucidly if I could only figure out in what decade it's meant to take place. The characters use cellphones, but apparently few of them have ever seen a man wearing women's clothes outside of a nightclub act. The boots themselves, as envisioned by costume designer Gregg Barnes, meld '60s-mod London fashion with the garish wear of dominatrix characters from that era's campier Euro–sci-fi flicks.

The show's central story, about a shoe-factory owner's son who tries to escape both the family business and the stifling industrial town that it dominates, reaches even further back, calling to mind the industrial-conflict plays of the Edwardian era's Manchester School. It especially summons up Harold Brighouse's Edwardian comedy, Hobson's Choice, revived memorably Off-Broadway a decade ago, with Martha Plimpton as the tyrannical old bootmaker's tough-minded daughter. Just replace Plimpton with Billy Porter in ultra-glam drag, and you'll see what I mean.

Not that anything so logically sequential as the action of Hobson's Choice occurs in Kinky Boots, which is based on a 2005 movie. People arbitrarily get handed huge jobs for which they're wildly unqualified, inexplicably cooperate, then inexplicably turn on one another, all to give the plot a few more twists to keep its mechanism spinning. The old boss, who goes doggedly on manufacturing an old-fashioned product that he knows no one wants, is matched, after he dies, by the endlessly cheery, self-sacrificing workers who'll do anything to help his successor launch a new product that most of them think is strictly lunatic. The notion suggests the England of '30s movie musicals, not the post-Thatcher era.

Billy Porter tries on Kinky Boots.
Matthew Murphy
Billy Porter tries on Kinky Boots.

Details

Buyer and Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Rattlestick Theater
224 Waverly Place
866-811-4111
rattlestick.org

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But, of course, those '30s movie musicals, with everyone cheerily pitching in to save the plant, offer Kinky Boots yet another underlying model, as do their '40s reworks, in which song and dance win the war. The show's sound may strike a contemporary pop-rock note, courtesy of Cyndi Lauper's songs, but the hoopla is the old hoopla, with only its sexual politics updated. While the factory retools its output to save jobs from draining off to foreign producers who skimp on quality, the workforce simultaneously learns how to fight a new war on behalf of dignity and equality for cross-dressers.

The factory-saving product—women's thigh-high boots for men to wear—neatly encapsulates both issues. The workers need the jobs and the gender illusionists need the boots. The suspense hinges on whether the factory can overcome its own prejudices and turn out the boots in time for Milan's super shoe show. In order to get there, both the manufacturer's son, Charlie (Stark Sands), and his nightclub-queen source of inspiration, Lola (Porter), have to unload a lot of emotional baggage, especially regarding their conflicted feelings toward their respective fathers. All ends well, of course: With a story this preposterous, an unhappy ending would indicate a true pettiness of spirit on the creators' part.

And these creators—Lauper, book writer Harvey Fierstein, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell—assuredly aren't petty. Their results may be coarse and slapdash, but the piece has a raucous, amicable spirit that tends to jolly you along even when its showiness starts to get over-showy and you might wish for a little more reality in the mix. Mitchell's first-act finale, with the drag semichorus of Lola's backup dancers rolling or prancing on treadmills as they display the new boots, has the same exhilarating sense of organized chaos that the high points in the best old-style Broadway musicals used to provide, as well as the best of Lauper's perky, bumptious songs, "Everybody Say 'Yeah'."

With the score, as in other departments, the show needs this overarching geniality to compensate for its shortfall in creativity. Bless its makers: They wanted us to have a good time in the theater, and they gave it their best shot. So we have a good time, though script and songs touch mostly well-worn bases, and though Mitchell's direction often accentuates the material's signs of wear by leaning heavily on the obvious. His approach has especially disappointing results with Porter, a supple and magnetic performer who, as Lola, has been asked to hammer every line at you hard and loud, flattening any potential charm and putting further strain on a voice already weary from the role's strenuous demands.

Sands, in contrast, gets to play far more low-keyed through much of the evening, so that when he attacks his big solo numbers, both he and the audience are hungry for the full-out emotional display that he readily supplies. And I suspect that Annaleigh Ashford, who plays his factory-gal love interest, may have a distinctive personality. It's hard to do more than entertain suspicions, since the show has put immense effort into making her look and sound like an imitation Kristen Chenoweth. Isn't its stance against manufacturing cheap replicas?


While you might not buy the boots, the mores, or the chronology of Kinky Boots, it could still send you out in a buoyantly materialistic mood. Better merchandise is available in more eccentric downtown locales—like the most architecturally oddball New York theater, the Rattlestick. I'm not speaking, mind you, of the play currently on view there, Jonathan Tolins's Buyer and Cellar, a one-actor piece that would, in itself, be a very tough sell.

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1 comments
judithcooper46
judithcooper46

Michael, You forgot to mention that the decibel level of the production kills the music and the drama and leaves one exhausted

 
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