Kinky Boots has been developed outside New York like most musicals, but feels like it has sashayed onto Broadway out of nowhere. The sparkly new musical is based on an obscure 2005 British film I’d never heard of, in which Chiwetel Ejiofor received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a transvestite performer who helps inspire a drab, failing shoe company to reorient itself towards the fetish or “kinky” market. Based loosely on a real story, the film wasn’t a success, but the tale has been rejuvenated as a cheerily campy musical, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by ’80s pop icon Cyndi Lauper. It’s an amusing romp in which a splashy and colorful but fairly tame version of drag culture meets the “straight” world, which includes some relatively non-threatening bigotry.
It’s also a kind of love story, but not the typical romantic sort. Charlie Price, played by a thoroughly capable if somewhat bland Stark Sands, is the reluctant inheritor of an old-school shoe manufactory that’s hit the skids. Lola, played with a sweet sort of flamboyance and lots of heart by Billy Porter, is a successful but small-time drag performer with a fantastical retinue of chorus “girls” in stereotypically outrageous costumes. As these two become mismatched teammates in a last-ditch effort to save Charlie’s company by developing a line of “kinky boots” for cross-dressing men, they discover that – wait for it – they’re not so different after all.
It’s not the colorful drag queens but Charlie’s grumbling working-class employees who lend the show its layer of secondary depth. For one: As grunt worker Lauren, the fabulous Annaleigh Ashford nearly runs away with Act One with her deliciously out-there performance of the show’s best number, “The History of Wrong Guys.” For another: Daniel Stewart Sherman is solid as Don, an overweight third-generation factory worker with a bad case of insecure machismo. Not everything about Fierstein’s book convinces – a too-sudden personality transformation on Charlie’s part, his sketchily written girlfriend, a weak real-estate twist – and the British accents are inconsistent (why couldn’t the story have been re-set in the States?), but this group of well-drawn and well-played characters makes the world that director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell presents to us varied and interesting.
Lauper’s score, while not old-school memorable, is quite good, frequently reminiscent of the bubbly pop of the ’80s but with some clever, sharp lyrics. And Fierstein is adept at concise dialogue that’s just realistic enough. Staging any new musical on Broadway is a crapshoot, but if Kinky Boots holds on it will be a happy addition to 2013’s Great White Wardrobe. A London production is planned too.