Stunning, rousing ‘Kinky boots’ take you beyond normative problem solving

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy


There’s much to cheer about in the high kickin’, rousing and sexy Tony Award-winning Best Musical “Kinky Boots,” a touring version of which remains at Cleveland’s Connor Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday.

There’s the win-win situation involving two individuals who’d likely never meet under normal circumstances. One needs something and by getting it, he’ll save a long-time family business.
There’s irony in that the drag queen Lola shows he’s more of a man than the northern English bloke whose blue collar, macho mentality can’t conceive of a transvestite being a real man.
The musical is blessed with vivacious and varied musical numbers by famed pop singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper. She captures the emotional hearts of the characters in her first stage writing gig.

But for all the electric dancing, energy and the unexpected, unlikely source of inspiration that makes “Kinky Boots” a pleasant surprise, there’s at least one song that gets to the show’s soul. “Not My Father’s Son,” like some others, is a quieter, reflective piece, during which the seemingly odd couple of Lola and Charlie Price realize they share similar pasts.
In “Not My Father’s Son,” Lola, a trained boxer (another irony) reveals that even though he tried to please his father, who wanted him to win the boxing championship he never earned, that wasn’t who Lola was.

Price also realizes he’s not the person to carry on as the next generation as owner of his father’s men’s shoe company.  “We’re the same, Charlie boy, you and me,” the song concludes.
It’s an especially relevant message these days, with racial disharmony, discord and distrust of those different than us gripping our society.

“Kinky Boots” is hardly just a show laden with clichés about cross dressing and the gay lifestyle. It bears similarities to the movie “Billy Elliot” and its award-winning stage adaptation. 
Both pit blue collar workers who are rough around the edges, united in their macho mentality against outsiders who find solace in ballet (in “Billy Elliot”’s case) and performing as a cross-dresser (in the case of “Kinky Boots”). These outsiders, however, prove neither are soft, weak or sissies.

In “Kinky Boots,” the Price & Sons shoe factory is on the brink of bankruptcy. The surviving son realizes he must enter a niche market if the business is to survive. 
Enter Lola, a cabaret performer in need to ladies shoes that will fit well on men. Suddenly Lola’s need could become the savior of Price’s business. The title refers to red, high-heeled, thigh-high boots that Lola agrees to help manufacture.

In Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning book, there’s no smooth sailing toward Lola and Price’s goals.

Part of Price’s conflict is whether to remain on board with the company, or leave with his fiancé Nicola (a pushy, ambitious Grace Stockdale).
Another obstacle: The blue collar workers, particularly a bloke named Don.
At one point, Lola mentions to him the notion of accepting someone for who they are.
“What does that mean?” he asks, confused and irritated.

Don’s character arc, which includes a surprisingly beneficent act, endears us to him at the end. Don is played by Joe Coots as an in-your-face, close minded and uncouth man who transitions smoothly into an accepting, fun-loving individual.

The likability of the characters translates into a likable show.
As acted and sung by a talented touring cast, the characters come across as convincing, fully-fleshed people, never caricatures.

Kenny Morris plays the many facets of Price to near perfection, capturing his reluctance to take over the business at first, his swagger after meeting Lola and his inner pain and disappointment when disagreements and hardships arise.

Darius Harper is playful, sexy and comic as Lola, but finds the humanity and vulnerability in the character, which is necessary for us to fully sympathize with him.

David Rockwell’s scenic design is effective; the brick, weathering exterior of the factory establishes it’s age, a business that has seen better times. The exterior seamlessly opens to reveal a large factory without transparent windows. This can suggest that sometimes, you have to think outside the box, look beyond the obvious, establish a niche market in order to transform. Price looks beyond those non-transparent windows and finds Lola.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is effective in capturing moods, with red, purple and pink hues capturing the celebratory atmosphere during Lola’s performances in the cabaret setting. The lighting dims to focus on the tense situation at the factory, and then shifts back to the brighter setting, starkly contrasting the moods and creating counterpoint.

Gregg Barnes’ costumes help differentiate Parker and Lola, the latter more ostentatious than the businessman. 

“Kinky Boots” isn’t perfect: However touching, we could do without the awkward subplot involving a love affair between Price and one of his employees. Also, for the opening song, surely there are other ways to convey the beauty of shoes than to repeatedly proclaim they’re the “most beautiful thing in the world.”

These “Kinky Boots” are stunning. But also beautiful is the realization that commonalties and inspiration sometime lurk in places you least expect to find them.


IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Kinky Boots.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with performances also at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: 1615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
For ticket information, call 216-771-4444.