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Kinky Boots – Theatre Review: ASU Gammage. Tempe

Kinky poster

When you think about it, a show like the national touring production of Kinky Boots couldn’t be more appropriate to begin the 50th Anniversary of ASU Gammage in Tempe; it’s loud, brash, colorful, brazen, and despite what might appear on the surface as an iffy subject for children, the show is surprisingly family-friendly.  It’s something like a PG version of La Cage Aux Folles or Priscilla: Queen of the Desert with a touch of Hello Dolly’s grandstanding.

Do you know what the most beautiful thing in the world is, Charlie?” asks proud shoe factory owner, Mr. Price.  “A shoe,” replies young Charlie.  It’s not necessarily the answer Charlie believes, but he knows it’s what his dad wants to hear, so to please his father, that’s what Charlie says.  Thus begins the true story of Charlie and his factory.  Well, kind of true.

 Kink 1

There never was a Charlie Price or a Price and Sons Shoe Factory, but there was an Englishman called Steve Pateman who did what he could to save his family-owned shoe factory from closing down.  The story of how Steve produced a line of fetish footwear called Divine Footwear became an episode in a series of BBC TV documentaries called Trouble at the Top.  The story was so inspirational it was adapted into a British movie comedy where Divine Footwear was changed to the more provocative sounding Kinky Boots and where Steve Pateman became Charlie Price.

It’s easy to see how the modestly successful big screen comedy became a Broadway musical.  Unlike The Full Monty, where the potential from a straight film into a show was never that obvious, the movie version of Kinky Boots has the rhythm of a musical throughout.  Playwright Harvey Fierstein has done a grand job of adapting the film to the stage while keeping the flavor of the original intact.  Instead of an American transfer, the locale of the shoe factory remains in Northampton, England, plus, for authenticity, words like sod, wanker and snogging (necking or making out) are left in.  It’s only in the second half where Fierstein makes changes to the original narrative.  Some work, some don’t.

Perhaps suffering from the curse of many shows before it, most of what we need from Kinky Boots is told in the first half.  The problem of the shoe factory needing to close is presented, the idea that might help the place stay open is developed, and the work done to make that idea a success is accomplished.  The second half slows that breakneck pace of storytelling down somewhat.

 Kink 2

The rivalry and the following challenge of masculine strength between burly factory worker Don (Joe Coots) and drag queen Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) morphs from an up-close arm wrestling match in the film to the visually grander presentation of a boxing match, fought in comical slow motion inside a makeshift boxing ring.  Theatrically the change works perfectly fine.  But later, Fierstein infuses a more obvious layer of sermonizing leading to the climax regarding lessons learned from accepting someone for who they are – a moralizing element absent from the original.  When Don talks his fellow factory workers into going that extra mile for Charlie in the original story, he does so because of a conversation the factory worker overhears regarding a personal sacrifice Charlie is making for everyone.  The musical has Don doing the same thing but inspired instead by the moral lesson of acceptance.  For a character like Don, the eavesdropping scenario is more believable.

Kyle Taylor Parker plays the flamboyant Lola with all the grandstanding relish a character like Lola requires.  He’s a walking kaleidoscopic array of color.  “You like to look,” he states, “And I like to be looked at.”  When Lola is asked at an initial introduction, “And you are…?” the cross-dresser cuts in with the hilarious, “Insulted you would have to ask.”  By default, when Parker enters the stage, no matter how many of the ensemble are gathered, your eyes are on Lola.

Steven Booth is Charlie, a character with traits so opposite to those possessed by Lola that ordinarily calling a performer colorless and normal would seem like a harsh criticism, yet that’s exactly how Charlie should be in order for the character to work.  Booth brings the right amount of fumbling charm to the likable Charlie with his clean cut, schoolboy good looks and his often clueless demeanor.

 Kink 3

The part of Charlie’s budding love interest on the factory floor, Lauren, was always something of a pleasant though underplayed mousey Northampton lass in the original.  Lindsay Nicole Chambers injects an extra coating of energy and bounce to the part making her solo, The History of Wrong Guys, one of the musical highlights of the show.  There’s a playful giddiness to her delivery made all the funnier when she uses factory equipment to blow her hair back, striking a pose during her big song reminiscent of an 80’s music video or the windswept look of a girl in a shampoo commercial.

And finally, the music.  Cindy Lauper won a 2013 Tony for Best Score which remains a little surprising considering the approach.  Despite the different influences and musical styles used throughout, the songs are still essentially more pop than Broadway but at least they’re all delivered with a showbiz flair.  Like the musical itself, there’s an infectious quality to the songs that won’t remain with you for long after the show, but they get the job done while being performed.  You leave the theatre with the echoes of a  disco number still bouncing in you head.

As for the boots, those kinky things steal the moment every time they strut their stuff, plus they inspire one of the funniest lines in the show.  When the prototype boot with the wrong shade of red is first shown to Lola, the transveteran, as Charlie calls him, declares with horror, “Burgundy?”  Then he goes on to declare that “… Red is the color of sex.  Burgundy is the color of a hot water bottle.”

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website.

 To read the Valley Screen & Stage interview with Lindsay Nicole Chambers regarding her role of Lauren in Kinky Boots, CLICK HERE.

 

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