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‘Kinky Boots’ struts its stuff into Hancher, courtesy of the nimble Jos N. Banks

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Kinky Boots

Hancher — through Sunday, April 15

The National Tour of ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy

This weekend at Hancher Auditorium, the touring production of the 2013 Broadway play Kinky Boots struts its stuff into town.

Based on a BBC documentary series that featured the true story of a struggling heir of a failing shoe-manufacturing company that rebooted itself by designing footwear for drag performers and the fetish market, Kinky Boots was adapted into a middling 2005 British movie, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, and directed by Julian Jarrold. The Broadway musical adaptation, by contrast, was a trifecta of talent, with multi-Tony winning Harvey Fierstein writing the book, lyrics by Grammy-winner Cyndi Lauper and Tony-nominated Jerry Mitchell as choreographer and director.

The musical tells the story of Charlie Price, who inherits his father’s shoe factory, complete with its debts, unsold stock and, most importantly, many workers in Northampton — while he desires to join his fiancée in London. Upon Charlie’s chance meeting with the drag queen Lola and inspired by his employee Lauren’s (spitfire Sydney Patrick) suggestion to cater to a niche market, Charlie hires Lola to design and model his shoes for fashion week in Milan.

It’s equal parts Billy Elliot the Musical and The Full Monty — two other British working class musicals/films that deal with unemployment, self- reinvention, art and concepts of masculinity — and La Cage aux Folles with dashes of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (Fierstein wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles; Mitchell choreographed its revival as well as The Full Monty.) The story, therefore, has always been like a comfortable pair of shoes, easy but a bit worn around the edges.

This is not to undercut how pleasurable and full of heart the musical is. It’s an absolute joy to see these characters work together, grow and learn to love themselves as well as each other.

For the Friday, April 13 showing at Hancher there were several substitutions for the program, with the lead role of Charlie Price played by understudy Jace Reinhard. The play began with a choppy exposition of the first few scenes — Charlie leaving the family business for London and a new life, only to be called back upon his father’s untimely death — and the unnecessary early number of “Take What You Got” sung by Charlie’s boyhood friend-turned-London musician Harry, whom we never see again. Part of the stiltedness reflects Charlie’s aimlessness, but this touring production is smaller than the Broadway cast and the narrative cuts are uneven.

Jos N. Banks in the National Tour of ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy

With Lola’s appearance, however, the play truly begins. Jos N. Banks is bewitching as Lola, the cabaret performer with the quick one-liners and a penchant for wearing out her stilettos. Banks is a nimble performer, playing Lola with Tina Turner legs and pizazz, seducing factory workers and the audience in numbers such as “Sex is in the Heel” and “What a Woman Wants.” He also belts out the heartbreaking “Hold Me in Your Heart,” and harmonizes beautifully with Reinhard on the touching “Not My Father’s Son.”

Mistaken as a damsel-in-distress by Charlie on the streets on London, Lola fights off her attackers and introduces Charlie to his new business venture. There are several fish-out-of-water moments as Lola tries to blend in in Northampton by donning conservative menswear, and there are occasional skirmishes with Don (played with hulking bravado by Adam du Plessis), one of the factory workers. This culminates in one of the best-staged numbers, the strobe-light and slow-motion fight sequence of “In This Corner” as Lola, a former amateur boxer, and Don duke it out.

Kinky Boots, like several of the other musicals and plays cited above, plays with masculine identity and anxiety in fruitful ways. While Don is hostile to Lola, George, the factory manager (played by Eric Shonk) acknowledges Lola’s shoe designs and also falls for her charms in several small, but important, scenes in which he silently joins in dances with the factory’s women workers and visiting Angels.

Unlike Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy or La Cage aux Folles, both revolving around the experiences and identities of queer men with heterosexual family members as visitors into a queer community, Kinky Boots (even more so in this touring production) makes Charlie the protagonist. In the number, “Not My Father’s Son,” Charlie and Lola both fear that they have failed their fathers. Charlie’s father was only disappointed about his son leaving the family business, while Lola’s father completely disowned her for years. These are not the same situations.

Likewise, we first see Charlie as a young man deciding to move to the big city; we first see Lola in the city, still fighting for acceptance. After Charlie threatens to fire his overworked staff and says cruel and demeaning things to Lola, his solo “Soul of a Man” is about his failures as a good man, not about how much he has hurt others. Reinhard, nevertheless, offers the gravitas and emotions for this song. When Lola throws the fight to help Don save face, Don learns that to be a man he must accept others for who they are. While that eventually includes Lola, first, he must accept Charlie and their masculine failings.

Jos N. Banks and Adam du Plessis in the National Tour of ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy

That is, while Fierstein’s earlier works were about and for a queer audience in New York City during the AIDS epidemic, this musical is meant to appeal to people like Lola’s father, Don and even Charlie: the straight people who are not open-minded and accepting of others. A lot has happened in the LGBTQ+ community since the play’s debut a half-decade ago — including same-sex marriage rights on a state-by-state and, finally, a federal level in 2015.

But there have been several steps backward under the new administration, such as attempts to ban transgender people from the military, discriminatory bathroom bills, lack of protection for LGBTQ+ youth in schools and several openly homophobic and transphobic cabinet members. When we approach the play from its moment in recent history and out current retrograde politics, Lola explaining to Charlie the difference between transvestites and drag queens makes all the more sense.

All bad shoe puns are intended, but we may say that the musical has both a lot of soul and a lot of sole. The musical playfully moves across the jukebox, with tangos, rock songs, pop, R&B and funk, usually performed by Lola, and showcasing Cyndi Lauper’s radio-friendly works. At Lola’s Cabaret, we can enjoy the fleet footwork of her Angels — Brandon Alberto, Jordan Archibald, Eric Stanton Betts, Derek Brazeau, Tony Tillman and Ernest Terrelle Williams. In the first act closer, “Everybody Say Yeah,” Jerry Mitchell’s award-winning choreography is stunning as several drag queens and factory workers strut along, slide under and flip over moving conveyor belts that are producing the first pairs of over-the-knee, red pleather boots. The finale ensemble song dresses everyone in knee-high stiletto boots on a Milanese catwalk, prancing and high kicking to “Raise You Up/Just Be.”

This musical — with its message of self-acceptance, its challenges to only kind-of-performed masculinity and its warm and embracing community — is the uplifting, joyous, raucous musical that we all need right now.

Tickets are still available for Saturday and Sunday showings at Hancher Theatre. Kinky Boots runs again tonight, Saturday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday, April 15 at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $50-90.


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