If the Shoe Fits

Crude cross-dressing comedy has its moments but ultimately drags its heels

Kinky_Boots_Broadway_123_email_1Audiences cheering so loudly at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre that they drown out the noise of the traffic on West 45th Street have turned a loud, vulgar, mediocre drag show called Kinky Boots into an unqualified hit. How I wish I could join the applause without reservation, but what has been done to cheapen, coarsen and knuckle-sandwich the freshness and charm out of the delectable 2005 British film it’s based on shouldn’t happen to a sequined jockstrap.

The book by Harvey Fierstein is crude enough to make his work on La Cage aux Folles sound like Shakespeare. That is, when you can hear it over the screeching, pounding disco beat of an entire score of Cyndi Lauper rock songs that all sound exactly alike, or the cacophony of stomping feet choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, who also directed, with a sledgehammer. He’s a talented and energetic guy, with an eye cocked toward becoming the next Gower Champion, minus the refinement, or Jerome Robbins without the originality. As for the cast, cabaret shouter Billy Porter fares best, although his musical philosophy is “Why sing it when you can scream it better?” Playing a foxy drag queen named Lola, Mr. Porter leads a high-kicking line of trashy tranny chorus girls who look like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in garter belts. We’re used to chorus girls with five o’clock shadow, but ugly chorus girls? Not at these prices.

Still, with so few shows on the Broadway market that come anywhere close to real entertainment, Kinky Boots has its moments. The movie was a feel-good surprise about a sad, gloomy shoe factory in the warehouse section of Northampton, the hapless wanker named Charlie who drives it into bankruptcy and the wild black London performer who reinvents the business by cornering a niche market for oversized glitter boots for drag queens with big feet. The story is doubly exhilarating because it’s absolutely true: in fact, it’s dedicated to the skeptical men and women of the original Kinky Boots Factory, most of whom are still rubbing their eyes over their unpredictable windfall.

Charlie (Stark Sands, a survivor of the odious rock musical American Idiot) inherits the family business from his father, but he’s no businessman. The shoe orders are being returned, 600 pairs at a time, and Charlie is on the verge of sacking the personnel and closing down an institution that has been serving England with traditional men’s leather shoes for four generations. The miracle he needs to move forward with the times and manufacture a product people want to buy arrives during a business trip to London, where Charlie crosses paths with  feisty, flaming drag queen Lola, the star of a raunchy Soho transvestite show. “The first thing you notice about a person is their shoes,” his dad always used to say, and the first thing Charlie notices about Lola is that he can hardly squeeze his manly arches into his murderous stilettos. A lightbulb goes off in Charlie’s tousled head: why not create proper women’s boots that can support the weight and body size of a cross-dresser? Lola travels out to the Midlands with his chorus ladies called The Angels to design and model the new line, and the factory workers who are forced to switch gears and sew new thigh-high knife-point heels on patterns of incendiary red lizard and electric-blue sequins are mortified to the point of violence. What Lola needs is an ally, and he finds one in the unlikeliest of places—the factory’s most homophobic employee. By the time it all ends up at the international shoe fair in Milan, you get Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets The Full Monty. You also get to know Charlie, who remortgages his house to save the factory, and the flamboyant and utterly human Lola, whose real name is Simon and who almost became a heavyweight boxing champion, a career that ended when he showed up in the ring for a match wearing a strapless white cocktail dress. (“So you got a good shot but don’t get cocky,” wails Lola, “I’m as pretty as Ali and tough as Rocky.” Ouch.) Everybody learns a new meaning of the word tolerance in time for an ear-splattering rock ’n’ roll finale.

All of this appeals to people who still find
drag queens amusing and—would you believe?—innovative. But none of it is well served by a largely unremarkable book and an almost unlistenable score performed at decibel levels that attack the eardrums like assault weapons. To get the burning question of the evening (What does it take to be a real man?) to the oversold mezzanine, Mr. Fierstein’s book drags in every gay cliché in the book and even a few old jokes (“Oscar Wilde said: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”). In a rare moment of quiet reflection, Simon/Lola confesses the guilt he felt when his father, a prizefighter who hated gays, finally died of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking: “The irony is—the fags got him in the end.” Okay, there’s some undeniable contagious spirit and even a bit of poignancy to underscore the point of the evening (Unlock the door to your secret self and throw away the key!), but Cyndi Lauper’s generic score sounds more like a night of drunken debauchery in the 1970s at Studio 54. The dancing has a certain androgynous energy that some people find liberating, and there is even an entire shoe song about Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Prada that comes close to cleverness. But most of the time the lyrics are just embarrassing:

“The sex is in the heel even if you break it.

The sex is in the feel, honey you can’t fake it.

The sex is the appeal, kinky boys can shake it.”

I wish I could shake the headache I got from Kinky Boots. If this is the right direction for Broadway to head in, then I’d rather be wrong.

rreed@observer.com