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‘Kinky Boots’ is BACK, and It’s Phenomenal!

Callum Francis and the Company of Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Brianna Stoute, Christian Douglas in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Callum Francis and the Angels in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Callum Francis in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphy made)

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”).

Danielle Hope in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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”).

(L to R): Christian Douglas, Callum Francis in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

The Kinky Boots Company (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Callum Francis and Kinky Boots Company (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Christian Douglas in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.”

Callum Francis in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

Sean Steele and Angels in Kinky Boots (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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.

The Kinky Boots Company (Matthew Murphy/@murphymade)

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/

‘Funny Girl’ the Broadway Revival Starring Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes

Jared Grimes and Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Funny Girl has been successfully presented in the UK’s West End in revival (2016, book by Harvey Fierstein), in Paris, and in regional theater. However, producers have been loathe to consider a full-on Broadway revival until now. This is so for numerous reasons, not the least of which Barbra Streisand, who originated the role as a relatively unknown 21-year-old in 1964, inevitably draws acute comparison with anyone daring to try the part on for size.

Streisand was Fanny Brice in a confluence of personality, genius talent, comedic flair and pure drive. Though she didn’t win the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical (1964 when Funny Girl opened), she won the best actress Oscar for the 1968 film adaptation. It was a satisfying recognition after her tremendous work in making Fanny Brice and Funny Girl legendary. Her connections to the role, and association with the show’s signature songs became inviolate. So it is a good thing that Funny Girl is in play in this revival; perhaps more revivals will come in the near future.

(L to R): Kurt Csolak, Beanie Feldstein, Justin Prescott in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

That said it takes a courageous sensibility to attempt to transmogrify the role of the Fanny Brice Ziegfield Follies star away from Streisand’s iconic work, in this first Broadway revival. Kudos go to Beanie Feldstein who stars with Ramin Karimloo, Jared Grimes and Jane Lynch in the Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), Isobel Lennart (book), Harvey Fierstein (revised book), Funny Girl revival directed by Michael Mayer. Currently, the production runs at the August Wilson Theatre.

Beanie Feldstein has the appropriate determination to portray “the greatest star.” Nevertheless, during specific moments, she appears to be overwhelmed by the complex and profounder transitions the role requires as Fierstein’s book travels in flashback from the opening scene where Fanny gets ready to go onstage. The flashback of her memories follow how she moved from childhood to teen rising star to successful Follies celebrity who becomes an icon in her time. Uncloaked is her first anointing from gambler Nick Arnstein who compliments her on her talent. And as her star rises she becomes worthy of their budding relationship and blossoms, as his star dims and his wealth diminishes. By that time they’ve married.

(L to R): Leslie Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Feldstein is not new to challenges. She debuted on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly (2017). And she has been appreciated and noted for the humorous Booksmart and Lady Bird, and in her role as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story.

In the role of Fanny Brice she is uneven at best, at worst out of her kin, vocal acumen, acting talent, comfort/confidence zone. When she teams up with others (“I’m the Greatest Star” (“Reprise), “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Sadie, Sadie,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), she shines with capability and confidence. When she carries the song on her own (“Who Are You Now?” “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People,” “The Music That Makes Me Dance”), she skates on thin ice.

Beanie Feldstein and the cast of Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Not fervent with authenticity and the intensity that the role requires with songs like “People” which Fanny sings to convince herself to let go and love Nick Arnstein, who her mother has suggested is a criminal, she isn’t quite believable. However, with the ensemble, Jared Grimes’ wonderful Eddie Ryan and Ramin Karimloo’s suave, alluring Nick Arnstein, Feldstein relaxes and has more fun. Also, with the exuberant Jane Lynch (not necessarily believable as a pushy, Jewish mother), she overcomes herself and more comfortably inhabits the role.

Beanie Feldstein and Jared Grimes in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Sometimes Feldstein’s sweet singing went a tad flat momentarily in the first act and became a distraction to the events undergirded in the song. In her attempt to make Fanny Brice her own, certain schtick works if it glimmers, strikes, then vanishes. When it becomes repetitive, the humor loses its “funny.” As such, the youthful Fanny, the bumbling Fanny and the fake pregnant Fanny are clever. She is appropriately, broadly a ham (“His Love Makes Me Beautiful”). As Feldstein takes off on the visual, risque joke, the audience adores it and their adoration sets Fanny off into Fanny Brice stardom, all Beanie believable.

Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

The flashback of the cute, adorable, wide-eyed innocent Fanny, the gutsy star-driven dreamer with heart (“I’m The Greatest Star”), works for a season. When she meets Nick and is with him for a while,, she doesn’t quite transition to charming, sensual, intriguing funny, the lure which entices Nick. Thus, their relationship never moves beyond the girlish Fanny who transforms into the Fanny who is a star that is beyond Nick in success, talent and charm. At some point the “Star is Born” meme should come alive when she exceeds Nick in grace and beauty as a Follies “Great.” Feldstein never quite pulls that off. Nor does she manifest the pain Fanny experiences when Ramin’s Nick and she part ways which leads into the overcomer Fanny who transcends, heartbroken but triumphant.

Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Karimloo’s Nick is gorgeous, fit, debonair and experienced. This superficial ethos lures Fanny like bread does to fresh water fish. In their scenes and songs (“I Want To Be Seen With You,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Who Are You Now,” and You’re a Funny Girl” that Nick sings alone), both actor’s make sense of these scenes because Karimloo plays the seducer, the lover, the partner who acts upon her as the receiver. Feldstein doesn’t have to do much but “fall” into his arms and be under his spell. And that is easy to do. The women in the audience are standing in her shoes enamored of Karimloo’s aura and sterling voice.

(L to R): Deborah Cardona, Toni DiBuono, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

However, the complications of their marriage, seem static and should be predictable but are not emotional as Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t register that her relationship is dissipating with Nick after she becomes a “Sadie.” Despite all the lovely set appointments by David Zinn’s scenic design for their Long Island home, the irony is manifest. It is not a home because it lacks warmth as Nick’s concern about money takes over.

Ramin Karimloo and the cast in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Eventually, even Karimloo (who beautifully sings throughout and does a bang-up job in “Temporary Arrangement”), when Nick sings about his going off by himself to make money…has difficulty with latter scenes between himself and Feldstein. When Feldstein’s Fanny attempts to save their marriage by outtricking a trickster, his response to Fanny’s gambit is interesting, if not lackluster. Nick’s reckless gambling has placed him out of Fanny’s status and wealth. Feeling emasculated when his project goes bankrupt, he is driven back to his criminal ways to recoup, which he never can because he lands himself in jail. The urgency between them in the parting scenes right before his prison sentence and after fall flat. We don’t care all that much about her heartbreak because Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t seem to either by the “Finale.”

Jared Grimes, Jane Lynch in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

The book has been revised by Harvey Fierstein to streamline Act II which is a fine change-up. Fierstein transfers “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” sung by Mrs. Brice (Jayne Lynch) and Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes) to the second act. Both are super conveyors of good will and have a blast together during the number. Indeed, Lynch’s and Grimes’ numbers are noteworthy as they possess the stage with grace, aplomb and enjoyment that the audience appreciates.

(L to R): Peter Frances James, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes, Beanie Feldstein, Ephie Aardema, Debra Cardona, Martin Moran, Toni DiBuono and the cast of Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

Jared Grimes’ tap is non pareil and brings down the house. Grimes is helped by tap choreographer, Ayodele Casel, who also succeeds in creating a number in which Feldstein shines with the ensemble (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”). Overall the choreography by Ellenore Scott is strongest and most fun in the Ziegfeld numbers supported by the extraordinary costumes by Susan Hilferty with her expansively winged butterflies, shimmering chorus (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), bridal outfit in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” and in Fanny Brice’s outfits nearing the end of the production, reflecting the progressing years after the flashback ends. All are enhanced by the lighting design by Kevin Adams and Brian Ronan’s sound design.

Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl (Matthew Murphy)

If you have not seen the West End revival of Funny Girl in the UK or at a regional theater, this production bears seeing for a number of reasons. Fierstein’s revised book is excellent and gives a lot of play to the characterization of Nick Arnstein. The entire company and the leads’ team work shines. The music is wonderful and the historic figure of Fanny Brice, a woman who made her career at a time when women had power in theater is something to be reminded of. Brice went on to more success in the entertainment industry in later years. Her life is one to remember.

Final mention must be made about the superb musical team. They include Michael Rafter’s music supervision and direction, Chris Walker’s orchestrations, Alan Williams’ dance, vocal and incidental music arrangements, Carmel Dean’s and David Dabbon’s additional arrangements, and Seymour Red Press’s and Kimberlee Wertz’s music coordination.

The show runs with one intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: https://funnygirlonbroadway.com/

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