Liz Smith: Put on Your “Kinky Boots”

cyndi“BE yourself! Everyone else is taken!” says the magnificent drag queen star (Billy Porter) in the opening of Broadway’s newest hit musical “Kinky Boots.”

openingTHIS is a major morality play, set to rowdy irresistible Cyndi Lauper music and adapted from a little Miramax failure of a movie, with his usual brio, by the “king/queen” of teaching us to do right, Harvey Fierstein himself! Let’s face it, when Tony time rolls around, theater folks will not only have an entire musical cast to consider but also choreography, costumes, lighting, set, direction and the stars themselves  — red kinky boots!

The show opens with an appealing little boy dancing and gamboling, in a pair of ruby red high heels. It telegraphs that we are on our way, riding a comfortable Broadway idea where reverse stories about struggling gays, transvestites, downright drag queens, closet queens, and even transsexuals find themselves so popular these days. (How the mighty “straights” have fallen to their ordinary sexual selves. How complicated sex lives, manners and modes have risen to acceptance in America. If only the Supreme Court would come to Broadway to be taught!)

The issue of being who you really are nowadays is so riveting that the show’s leading man, a spectacularly-voiced, appealing, sincere and downright upight actor — Stark Sands — has to work hard to make an impact. He is modern Everyman and this is difficult amid so much Glitter and spangle.

We see Prince & Son shoes failing in a little English town when the founder hands it on to his unwilling strait-laced son. Actor Sands goes “urgent” in saving the business and maintaining quality while keeping all the family-style laborers at work. He does this against his fiancee’s wish that he sell the building for a condo and throw everybody out of work.

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MAYBE I  was standing to let latecomers enter my aisle, but I missed the why of what happened next. Onstage bursts a body, mind and face made just for the glamour of the stage. Lola, queen of local drag, comes on as if her bursting dynamic voice will save the universe. She is seeking a shoe or boot for men where the size and strength matter. Sands and his company become her target.

We are also served up Lola’s “girls” —  a motley group of more non-regal queens has seldom been seen. But they are nuclear weapons compared to anything else. They are the funniest, sexiest, most outrageous gang since the dancing cast of “La Cage aux Folles.” (And those “girls” were real wimps compared to Lola’s group.) Lola herself is a kind of exploding missile exhibiting the outrageous candor of Tallulah Bankhead and the sexual sneer and allure of Eartha Kitt. (Mr. Billy Porter is in a class by himself and he is sure to win the Tony unless World War III happens.) Then Lola, in a subdued kind of drag suitable for a “real man,” shyly turns up to be the new designer of a niche shoe-boot product.

The twain meets and collides as Lola improbably goes to work and the factory folks get a load of her and, well, I have already told too much plotwise.

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CYNDI Lauper seems to have a song for every feeling.

She may not be Irving Berlin or Cole Porter but she is definitely her own woman. And she herself is the queen of this rousing rock festival and its ballads and boom box quality. Some of the numbers in this score should pass on into pop hits; the dream of any songwriter who ever hummed a tune.

This is expressed in one particular scene where a blonde sardonic factory worker (Annaleigh Ashford) sees she is falling for the boss and sings a long with lyrics “I’ve Been Hurt Like This Before.” The audience adores her quirky way of making fun of herself.

bootsTHERE are staging triumphs in “Kinky Boots.” A simulated prizefight … .a worker’s walkout … a fabulously choreographed number where our hero, Sands, and the entire cast dance through a moving assembly line. This is brilliantly conceived by director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. The audience screams for more and became a regular cheering section opening night with Michael Feinstein, Liza Minnelli, Brooke Shields, and Joan Rivers in the audience to add VIP zip. The idea of a run-down old- fashioned business being invigorated and restyled is a positive one for the new age we are living and hoping in.purple

castAND Harvey Fierstein is one of the pioneers in changing minds. He attacked prejudice from the stage early on. This he did vs. convention and criticism. (I am ashamed to say some of that came from me.) But Harvey was right. He has  a giant heart. He is a teacher as much as he is an actor-writer, one who can sprout a big black beard today and tomorrow he’ll do elaborate drag.  (Harvey tells me next year he will write an even more overt and outrageous piece of work. I’ll bet he will.)

This show’s second act begins with real suspense that is a little ragged but proceeds under the edict that “Drag queens are now mainstream!”

The ending, in fashionable Milan, is simply almost unbelievable it is so garish and so funny. All misunderstandings are cleared up, love conquers, and the factory people appear better-dressed. Everyone has been converted.

Let me end saying I truly feel sorry for Tony contenders when it comes to Billy Porter who seems to me to have suddenly appeared out of nowhere with his genius intact. One can’t resist him from the opening moment he arrives to the blonde closing exotica, or as an humble insecure guy who could never please his father. He can sing, dance, move and he can act, too, and pluck at heartstrings you no longer think you have.

Put on your own kinky boots and go to the Hirschfeld Theater where the Jujamcyns, the Nederlanders, Terry Allen Kramer, Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig, Judith Ann Abrams and numbers of other backers are going to be sifting the money for this hit!

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/8/13

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