Review: Kinky Boots Has Kick, But Could Aim Higher

Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Steven Booth in Kinky Boots.
Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Steven Booth in Kinky Boots.
Matthew Murphy

The musical Kinky Boots, which was inspired by a modest 2005 film, tells the story of an unlikely partnership. Charlie has just inherited his father's shoe factory in Northampton in the English Midlands, a factory once known for producing some of the highest-quality shoes in the country. But the business is going broke because of a flood of cheap imports, and Charlie is thinking of absconding to London with his snooty fiancée to start a new life. This would mean laying off several of his skilled and dedicated workers, a fact that lovely Northamptonshire lass and factory-worker Lauren heatedly points out to him. He wavers. Into his life comes sexy drag queen Lola, who has a very practical problem: The kind of stiletto-heeled, thigh-high boots she requires are made for women and simply won't bear the weight of a man. And so a solution to the factory's problems glimmers. See also: Best Musical 2014 -- The Full Monty

The plot is based in reality: When England's regional shoemaking industry collapsed in the 1990s and factory buildings were sold to become expensive flats, factory owner Steve Pateman received a call from a fetish shoe shop, and the result was a line of shoes called Divine Footwear. As a movie, Kinky Boots was relatively low-key. It had a lot of fun showing the impact of exotic Lola in gray, tradition-bound Northampton. The acting was realistic, and then-relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor, now famed for his award-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, played Lola with depth, controlled power and a wise, quiet dignity that gave the film its heart. And it was rooted in the same strong tradition of British working-class culture that's been explored in the last few years in such musicals as Billy Elliot and The Full Monty -- both of which also began as films that married the gritty reality of working-class decline with a certain heartfelt, optimistic sentimentality.

The cast of Kinky Boots.
The cast of Kinky Boots.
Matthew Murphy

But when Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein turned the gentle film into Kinky Boots the Broadway musical, awareness of workers' problems became peripheral and was replaced with the usual all-American be-yourself-and-love-yourself message. British irony and understatement flew out the window, and emotions were didactically spelled out. Lola lost her specificity and became a talented but far more ordinary drag queen, posing and high-stepping in the accepted way and coming up with snappy aphorisms like the one always attributed to Oscar Wilde on greeting cards: "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken." We see not only Lola, who was abused by her father, but Charlie, who was loved by his, as wide-eyed children, and Lola gets a long, self-pitying song called "I'm Not My Father's Son" and another, actually addressed to her father: "Hold Me in Your Heart."

On the plus side, we've got glitz and glamour, some fun drag numbers and dozens of fabulous red boots. Lauper's songs are pretty standard but often lively, and there are a few good dance numbers, including a wonderful one involving conveyer belts. The sets are stunning. So it's possible to just sit back and enjoy all the color, movement and sound in what was, after all, an award-winning Broadway hit.

Only I kept wondering whether what I was watching was anything close to the Broadway version. Why didn't the choreography look sharper? Was it the fault of the songs that the voices didn't sound nearly as impressive as those you hear regularly on the Arvada Center stage? There was some talent on display, but also a lot of unconvincing acting, and the accents were all over the place. Okay, Northamptonshire is a hard one, but standard English would have worked. Couldn't the producers afford a dialect coach? Was this an Equity cast?

Turns out it was -- but with a bit of a catch. Where touring productions of such major shows as Wicked and The Book of Mormon pay performers full Equity rates, the union has revised its contracts in an effort to prevent the use of cheap, non-Equity talent. Kinky Boots, though highly profitable, is touring under a contract that allows for much lower than usual pay. How ironic that while labor issues are studiously downplayed in the show, they're seething away in the American theater.

Kinky Boots, prresented by Denver Center Attractions through November 9, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.


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