There’s something I’ve never understood about women — namely, their attraction to shoes. To most men, shoes are utilitarian things, bought not for style but for comfort. We have perhaps three or four pair, categories not by style but by function: work, gym, hiking, beach. But women have a very different relationship. Here’s an example: Yesterday afternoon I saw a show at the Pantages. They post tweets about the show on their front page, and here’s one that caught my eye: “What could be better but to see a musical about SHOES?” As a guy, I could think of many things better. So what explains my interest in the musical “Kinky Boots“, which I just saw at the Pantages (FB)? Two things: Cyndi Lauper and the message.
Let’s start with Cyndi Lauper (FB). If you look at the theatre in the 1940s and 1950s and I ask you to name the composers, who likely rolls off the tongue? Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers and Hart. Irving Berlin. Cole Porter. Comden and Green. Go to the 1960s through 1990s and you get new teams: Bock and Harnick. Kander and Ebb. Sondheim. This was an era when Broadway music became the popular music. Nowadays the composers are different: Jeannie Tesori, Andrew Lippa, Michael DeLaChusa, Jason Robert Brown, Ahrens and Flaherty. But what we’re also seeing is movement of major pop musicians into the theatre field. We’ve had major shows with music and lyrics by folks such as Elton John, Sting, U2, Green Day, and others. Kinky Boots represents the first forey by Cyndi Lauper on the stage, and for her effort she added a Tony award to her previous Grammy and Emmy awards. For us to have the next generation — and to have a theatre that speaks to the younger audience — this is a must. Of course, I had previously heard the music to Kinky Boots; however, I just had to see how it worked into the story.
Next, let’s look at the message of Kinky Boots. It is a simple and clear one: accept people for who they are. This is a message increasingly important these days, and it transcends the surface subject matter of drag queens and transvestites. To elaborate: when I came home from Kinky Boots, I was watching the 50th Anniversary special on Peter Paul and Mary. It pointed out their emphasis on human rights, and how our society has moved on from civil rights. It concluded with talking about Peter’s work with Operation Respect — an effort to get rid of bullying. When Kinky Boots hit Broadway, we were in the midst of the gay marriage debate. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was on tour, as was Billy Elliott, and La Cage had recently returned. Drag was in, and we were focusing on acceptance of gays. Look at today, and our focus is back on race — but the issue is again acceptance for who people are, and removing the notion of privilege based on stereotypes. Kinky Boots sends a strong message — do not bully and stereotype people based on their appearance, but see them for who they really are. It is a message that will continue to resonate — and one that must be repeated and heard — until it becomes part of our being.
Kinky Boots, which has a book by Harvey Fierstein (FB) and is based on the motion picture of the same name written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, tells the true story of the WJ Brooks shoe factory (Price and Sons in the movie and on stage) and how the factory was rescued by a forey into drag queen footwear. The true story was abstracted someone (in what some claim is formulaic sitcom fashion) into the movie, and then slightly rearranged and reworked for the stage. The basic story, as presented, is one about two boys. One, Charlie, is on track to inherit his father’s shoe factory in Northhampton UK, even though he doesn’t like shoes and wants to move to London to be with his fiancee. The other, Simon, is a flamboyant boy who loves wearing high heels (note that he is neither gay nor transvestite, as the story makes clear). The two boys grow up as expected, with Simon adopting the stage name of Lola and becoming a drag queen, and Charlie inheriting the shoe factory (after he had moved to London with his finacee, Nicola). Charlie discovers the factory is failing, and through a chance encounter with Lola, identifies that ladies heels and pumps are not suited to the male frame. A co-worker, Lauren, convinces Charlie that a niche market is needed for the factory to survive, and sexy shoes for men becomes that market. The story, from this point, becomes somewhat predictable and along the lines of Billy Elliot: Lola comes into the factory to design the shoes. Lola is not accepted by the small town. Lola convinces the most bigoted man (Don) the value of acceptance. Don becomes the key factor in saving the factory. Charlie dumps Nikola for Lauren. The shoe factory is saved.
Many reviews I have read have complained about the sitcom and predictable nature of this story. But that didn’t bother me. Many Broadway shows have predictable storylines, going back to Oklahoma (was there any doubt Laurey would end up with Curly) and Sound of Music. That doesn’t make them bad, as long as the journey along the way is entertaining, doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief, and has music that works. Further, one can’t blame Fierstein for the nature of the story; reading the Wiki summary of the movie, he only did some slight rearrangement. As for the music, Cyndi Lauper did a pretty good job for a first time outing. It wasn’t perfect — there were a few numbers that didn’t quite serve to advance the story or illuminate the characters, or that went on too long. But for the most part, the music was exciting and energetic, advanced the story, and worked well. What is interesting is how the combination ended up stronger than the pieces: this was a musical that was a shot of energy to Broadway and has continued to perform strong. [What is unclear is the long term life of the piece — will this musical pop-up everywhere once it is released for regional productions? That’s happened to Mary Poppins, In The Heights, Avenue Q, Addams Family and Memphis. I haven’t seen it happen to Billy Elliot or Priscilla.]
One other common complaint I have seen in the reviews relates to the heavy accents in the story. This was a major problem in the tour of Billy Elliot, where the accents made the story hard to hear and follow. I don’t think the problem was as bad here, although you did need to take a little effort to listen carefully, and there were a few points where I could not make out the words.
As usual, for the touring production, we didn’t get the names that were on Broadway. Gone are the days of the LA Civic Light Opera, already forgotten by the LA Times, where LA got the Broadway starts. Luckily, the touring cast (under the direction of Jerry Mitchell (FB), with D. B. Bonds as the Associate Director and Tour Direction by The Road Company) does an excellent job. In the lead positions are Steven Booth (FB, TW) as Charlie Price and Kyle Taylor Parker (FB, TW) as Lola. Booth has a nice boyish charm about him, and handles the acting, singing and dancing quite well. Parker is a powerhouse knockout as Lola, taking over the stage with his personality. Both are quite fun to watch.
In the secondary positions (at least in terms of stage time and the story) are Lindsay Nicole Chambers (FB, TW) as Lauren and Joe Coots (FB) as Don. Chambers was a delight as Lauren. I was sitting near the back, and kept bringing out my binoculars to watch her. She had an extremely expressive face, and just seemed to be having a lot of fun with the role and the character — which to me, adds and extra something to the performance. She also sang and danced quite well. Coots was convincing as Don, which made his conversion to a new attitude in the story work well. It was also nice to see a different side of Coots at the end — we always seem to catch the Equity Fights AIDS performances, and Coots did the appeal from the stage. He gave off the vibe that this was a company that had fun working together — and perhaps this is why this production gives off the energy that it does.
Much of the rest of the cast consisted of ensemble, dance, and smaller named roles. This makes it hard for characters to stand out and be noticed, but there are a few I’d like to highlight. First and foremost is Bonnie Milligan (FB). The underlying message in this story — acceptance for who you are and what you are — goes beyond skin color, gender, or how you like to dress. It also goes to size acceptance, one of the few areas where our society today still openly judges. This is where Milligan comes it. It was an absolute delight to see an actress of size (i.e., not the normal twig-sized actress) having fun on stage, moving, playing, singing well, emoting well, and just exuding joy. She was a true, true delight to watch, especially in the “What a Woman Wants” number. Also notable were the kids in the cast — Anthony Picarello as Young Charlie and (at our performance) Troi Gaines as Young Lola. They were cute during their two scenes, but their real personality came out during the closing number, when they were onstage dancing and having fun to “Raise You Up/Just Be”. Just fun to watch. Completing the cast were Grace Stockdale (FB) (Nicola), Craig Waletzko (FB) (George), Damien Brett/FB (Ensemble), Stephen Carrasco (FB) (Dance Captain/Swing), Lauren Nicole Chapman (FB) (Ensemble), Amelia Cormack (FB) (Trish / Ensemble), J. Harrison Ghee (FB) (Swing), Blair Goldberg (FB) (Ensemble), Andrew Theo Johnson (Young Theo Primary) Darius Harper/FB (TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Crystal Kellogg (FB, TW) (Swing), Jeffrey Kishinevskiy (Young Charlie Standby), Jeff Kuhr (FB) (Swing), Ross Lekites (FB) (Richard Bailey / Ensemble), Patty Lohr (FB) (Swing), Mike Longo (FB) (Harry / Ensemble), Tommy Martinez (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), David McDonald (FB) (Mr. Price / Ensemble), Nick McGough (FB) (Angel / Ensemble), Horace V. Rogers (Simon Sr. / Ensemble), Ricky Schroeder (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Anne Tolpegin (FB) (Milan Stage Manager / Ensemble), Juan Torres-Falcon (FB, TW) (Angel / Ensemble), Hernando Umana (FB, TW) (Angel/ Ensemble), and Sam Zeller (FB) (Ensemble).
Turning to music and movement. The production was choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (FB), assisted by Associate Choreographer Rusty Mowery (FB) and Dance Captain Stephen Carrasco (FB). Overall, the movement worked well — it was energetic and fun to watch. In terms of music, Stephen Oremus (FB) was the Music Supervisor and Arranger and Michael Keller was the Music Coordinator. Adam Souza was Music Direcotr and Conductor, as well as playing Keyboard in the touring orchestra. Additional members of the touring orchestra were Ryan Fielding Garrett (Associate Conductor / Keyboard 2), Josh Weinstein and Oscar Bautista (Guitars), Sherisse Rogers (Bass), Adam Fischel (Drums). They were supplemented locally by Kathleen Robertson (Violin), Paula Fehrenbach (Cello), Dick Mitchell (Flute / Clarinet / Alto Saz / Tenor Sax), John Fumo (Trumpet), Alan Kaplan (Trombone), Paul Viapiano (Guitar 2), David Witham (Keyboard Sub). The sound produced by these musicians was good, clean, and at time, loud.
Lastly, there’s the technical side of things. The scenic design of David Rockwell worked quite well; I particularly liked the roller tables of the “Everybody Say Yeah” number (which was seen on the Tonys). The sound design of John Shivers was reasonably good, although any sound design requires tuning to be heard in the massive and auditorily-bouncy monstrosity that is the Pantages. The lighting design of Kenneth Posner was dark at points, but otherwise worked well. The costumes (Gregg Barnes), hair (Josh Marquette), and make-up (Randy Houston Mercer) were spectacular. Rounding out the technical and other credits: Kathy Fabian (Props), Amy Jo Jackson (Dialect Coach), Telsey + Company (Casting), Smitty/Theatersmith Associates (Technical Supervision), Peter Van Dyke (Production Stage Manager), Jack McLeod (Stage Manager), Kate McDoniel (Assistant Stage Manager), Foresight Theatrical (General Manager), and loads and loads and loads of producers.
Today is the last performance of “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages. I’m sure you can catch it at future tour stops; next up is San Francisco.
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Theatre continues Tuesday with the Alumni Performance of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Nobel Middle School (normal performances are Thursday through Saturday). Following that is the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans. When I return, it will be “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim in the afternoon, followed by an Austin Lounge Lizards concert at Boulevard Music in Culver City on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente; additionally we’ll likely have the first show of the REP East (FB) season: “Avenue Q“. Ticketed productions pick up in February, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on the weekend of March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.