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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, April 04, 2013 7:29 pm

Review: Sweet 'Kinky Boots' an ode to love, shoes


On Broadway these days, there are your typical witches, princesses and crooners. What we've been missing is something colorful, something brash, safe and yet a little naughty. What we've been missing is, of course, drag queens.

Then thank goodness for songwriter Cyndi Lauper, playwright Harvey Fierstein and the seven fierce drag queens led by a fabulous Billy Porter in the new musical "Kinky Boots."

Based on an obscure 2005 British film about a British shoe factory on the brink of ruin that retrofits itself into a maker of fetishistic footwear, this is a musical that comes alive when the lithe and towering men in heels appear.

The show that opened Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre is so full of good will - did you expect anything less from Lauper or Fierstein? - that only a curmudgeon could walk out and not want to hug the crowds in Times Square, even the sketchy ones in cartoon costumes.

True, the second half is almost completely unnecessary, the English accents are laughable and the footwear puns are relentless. But who cares? This is a big ol' sweet love story about sons, the families we make and red patent leather.

Lauper's catchy, pop-rock soundtrack reflects her ever-evolving taste - from the beautiful, "True Colors"-ish ballad "I'm Not My Father's Son," to the pulsating "The Sex Is in the Heel" and the disco "Raise You Up/Just Be."

She's also pushed herself with different flavors, too, including an almost Middle Eastern-influenced tango "What a Woman Wants" and the torch song "Hold Me in Your Heart."

Fierstein, also represented on Broadway right now with the book for "Newsies," spins his typical theatrical magic, teasing out from the movie both a love triangle and the pull-push of fathers and sons.

But the real star is Porter, who delivers a touching, sassy, nuanced performance, often in 8-inch heels. One character sums up his importance to this show by saying, "Whenever you leave a room, there's always a great big gaping gap." Amen.

He's helped by Stark Sands, and his great voice, who plays a convincing buttoned-up guy who must learn to unleash his inner drag, and Annaleigh Ashford turns in another of her comic showcases, this one as an adorable - and very nasal - love interest opposite the skillful Celina Carvajal.

And in honor of the guys who have strapped up their private parts and pushed their bodies to the edge, let's hear it for the drag queens: Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton and Joey Taranto.

Gregg Barnes' costumes are schlubby when they need to be and high-beam outrageous when they need to be; there were audible inhales when some female - and possibly male - audience members spied some fabulous boots. Some footwear even got ovations.

Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who proved he has the cross-dressing chops after working on the last Broadway drag extravaganza, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," skillfully makes his 32 cast members - some wearing thigh-high boots and stiletto heels - jump on and around conveyor belts and do high kicks on the factory floor. He also manages to stage a glitzy fashion show and a slow-motion boxing match all within David Rockwell's grim factory set featuring missing bricks.

There are some false moves - the musical starts off shakily, Sands is poorly served by a song in the second act in which he seems to have been abandoned by the rest of the show, and Porter has a tendency to leave scenes screeching like the Wicked Witch of the West. But these are quibbles.

How can you have too much to argue about a show that calls the new sexy boots coming off the assembly line "two and a half feet of irresistible tubular sex?" Elsewhere on Broadway, Cinderella may have her expensive slippers, but it's likely she'd really love to snag a pair of what's on offer at "Kinky Boots."