I did not ,see the 2013 production of Kinky Boots, the multi-award winning blockbuster by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cindi Lauper (music & lyrics), that ran for six years and fortuitously closed April of 2019, one year before the COVID pandemic upended Broadway. The show won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. These went to Billy Porter as the Best Actor in a Musical, Cindi Lauper for her amazing music and lyrics, Jerry Mitchell for choreography, Stephen Oremus for his orchestrations and John Shivers for sound design.
To share in the bounty for theater goers like me who missed the show and for those fans who are over the moon for Lola and her posse-pop-rocking Angels, producers continue to inspire us presenting this glorious musical at the appropriately intimate, yet large cast accommodations Off Broadway at Stage 42. The creatives are the same with the exception of Gareth Owen, whose sound design keeps the pared- down orchestra as enthralling as ever, and the actors’ vocals spot-on clear. Cleverly keeping the ticket prices at a reasonable level, this “kick-ass” Kinky is a slimmed down version, loyal to what works timelessly with the songs and book with tweaks and a few changes. The cast is extraordinary with gobsmacking, striking voices and performances.
Based on the titular 2005 British film written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, partly inspired by true events, the musical highlights Charlie Price (the wonderful Christian Douglas), the inheritor of Price & Sons shoe factory. Planning to launch out on a career with his fiancee Nicola (Brianna Stoute), Charlie’s last wish is to keep the failing company afloat. However, an unusual sequence of events redirects him from his intentions and prompts him to form a partnership with drag queen Lola (Callum Francis), in a wild scheme to produce a line of high-heeled boots for a niche market, which just might save the company. In the process circumstances evolve for the characters, who in their collaboration discover their unique talents, release their inner apprehensions and fears and become more accepting and loving of themselves and others.
The leads are brilliant. Christian Douglas’ Charlie is a reluctant inheritor. Before his death his father attempts to convince him that the company offers a purposeful career (“Price & Son Theme,” “The Most Beautiful Thing”). However, his father went into debt to keep his workers in their jobs and unbeknownst to Charlie plans to sell the company. Charlie vows to leave for London and start another career with Nicola (“Take What You Got”).
Douglas’s voice is sterling and his acting chops are right on. He builds Charlie’s character into one with more confidence to rally his workers after Lola’s designs inspire him to take the “kinky boots” journey. He is Lola’s perfect foil, who turns into a friend, when they both accept the depth of their sense of failure to create an opportunity (“I’m Not My Father’s Son”). As Charlie, Douglas’ pulling away from his relationship with Nicola is subtly gradual, with a grand assist by the superb Danielle Hope, factory worker Lauren, whose swooning gestures as she falls in love with Charlie are organically comedic and delightful (“The History of Wrong Guys”).
When the pressure is on to produce for the Milan show, we see Charlie’s obsessive, martinet nature arise. Douglas turns on a dime as he becomes fearful of failure and a perfectionist, fighting with Lola and infuriating his workers in a destructive act that threatens to upend their hard work. But for an unlikely savior who provides encouragement and funds in “the nick of time,” the factory’s closure would have been imminent. All they need for their success is Lola’s and the Angels’ participation in the Milan show. But Charlie can’t reach Lola, though he’s profusely apologized.
As Charlie, Douglas’ various complicated turns of character are well drawn and profoundly specific. In the powerhouse song where Charlie confronts his self-destructive hubris, “The Soul of a Man,” he brings down the house with applause that lasts some minutes. His performance is superb and heartfelt.
As Charlie’s friend and his initial foil, Lola is a character for the ages. As Lola Callum Francis is galactic star shine. Beautifully graceful and luminous, Francis is true to Lola’s cheeky characterization of himself: “an attention getter,” who mesmerizes. When he is on stage, your eyes invariably shift to him because of his relaxed authenticity and enjoyment in “bringing it.” One has the sense he understands all of the pain and glory that has been Lola’s journey toward self-acceptance and self-love.
This is especially so when he sings with Charlie (“I’m Not My Father’s Son”). His smashing solo “Hold Me in Your Heart” kills. The latter song he sings to the nursing home residents, one of whom is his father. Francis inhabits Lola in “The Land of Lola,” “Sex Is in the Heel,” the magnificent “Everybody Say Yeah” and the uplifting finale “Raise You Up/Just Be.” Profoundly, Francis exhibits the disparities and complexities of the character; Lola is confident about his feminine gorgeousness, and less accepting about his identity as Simon. However, Charlie, Don and the others at Price & Sons help him grow into a fuller human being over the course of their designing and manufacturing “kinky boots.”
As Lola evolves and gains confidence being Charlie’s glam boot designer, Callum Francis deftly brings the two halves together to magnify what we must acknowledge as the finest strains of our humanity. The actor/character does this with such love and joy, one wants to embrace him for striking the divine and the human as he embodies all the themes of the musical: the importance of acceptance, love, compassion and empathy.
When we first see Simon as his male self, the shock is palpable. Francis is unrecognizable, for we have come to enjoy his Lola self. Thus, the difference, like night and day “says it all,” making Francis’ Lola all the more astounding. His gestures, mien, voice for Simon and Lola are distinct, unique, incredible. It is no wonder that having played the part in Britain, Australia and, briefly, on Broadway, Callum Francis won the Helpmann Award, Australia’s equivalent of the Tony Award.
Some have whined that the scene of the young Simon and young Charlie, de-mystifying their backgrounds shouldn’t have been cut. However, there has been a sea change since the show closed and a pandemic has been weaponized by political conservatives who are against the existence of anyone who cannot be stuffed into their frightening cardboard copies of “normal.” Initially, crass, British lout Don (the fabulous, hysterical Sean Steele), reflects why both Simon and Charlie want a life elsewhere and are attracted to London. He represents the bigoted individual Charlie and Simon have had to suffer.
Additionally, the cuts make sense in 2022. The radically repressive, conservative, political tenor of our times moving into a Mid Terms where the far-right MAGA retrenchment against LBGTQ rights, human rights (Fla. Governor Ron Deathsantis’ migrant trafficking), the loss of the right to privacy (the overturning of Roe vs. Wade), has been so outrageous, the cut scenes are not necessary. The idea of anti-democratic cultural paternalism is pervasive. We understand such discriminatory rejection as inhuman. Drag queen Lola, is a firebrand of political controversy, daring to accept herself. The play’s uplifting themes are all the more trenchant, salient and vital for our times where hatred and condemnation lurk around every corner.
Thus, we feel the full thrust of Lola’s hearbreak in the ballad, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” which identifies the paternal rejection. It is not only a cry from Simon’s heart, it is a cry we can identify with, for who has not experienced rejection in one form or another, parental, familial, rejection from friends, strangers, etc.?
This faithful reboot of Kinky Boots directed by Jerry Mitchell is a marvel. The musical is two hours and twenty-five minutes that fly by. For tickets and times go to their website: https://kinkybootsthemusical.com/