Kinky Boots: Say yes to the heels!

publicity photo for Kinky Boots

Jeffrey Follis, Joshua Lalisan, Stewart Adam McKensy, Ryan Maschke, and Andrew J. Hampton
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Star power, baby! Stewart Adam McKensy, who plays Lola, the drag queen at the centre of the Arts Club’s mounting of Kinky Boots, has so much of it he’s like a constellation. And McKensy isn’t alone: there are many, many bright lights in director Barbara Tomasic’s tight, celebratory production.

That’s not to say that the whole evening works. Harvey Fierstein’s book for Kinky Boots is so predictable that its set-up is tedious.

Charlie Price’s dad expects him to take over the family’s shoe-making factory in Northampton, but Charlie doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, so he follows his materialistic, social-climbing fiancée Nicola to London, where he meets Lola, a drag queen, who has broken the high heel on one of her shoddily manufactured boots. Apparently, there’s a niche market begging to be served. Whatever will Charlie do? Answer that — not a huge challenge — and you’ve got the basic roadmap for the show.

The opening number, “Price and Son Theme/The Most Beautiful Thing”, is about as dull as opening numbers get. Charlie’s dad and the ensemble sing a song about how great shoes are. Calling this number repetitive would be an understatement: “The most beautiful thing in the world/ The most beautiful thing in the world/ Charlie, that I know, I know/ The most beautiful thing in the world/ The most beautiful thing in the world’ Charlie, it’s beautiful!/ It’s beautiful!” By my count, Cyndi Lauper’s Tony-winning lyrics for this song repeat beautiful 43 times.

But then surprises start to drop. Much to her own astonishment, Lauren, who works at the Price and Son shoe factory, falls for Charlie and sings the hilarious — and relatable — “History of Wrong Guys”: “Women have been making bad choices since the beginning of time/ Are you gonna be another one of mine?” Kelli Ogmundson’s delivery is so comically committed — she throws herself into the sighing, ugh-ing exasperation of every gal pal you’ve ever had — that I basically didn’t care that her singing went flat on the night I was there. (It happens; besides, she redeemed herself vocally in the reprise.)

And Lola has been building steam all along. McKensy’s characterization is big, made up of huge physical gestures and wild vocal turns that he fills with honest emotion. Then, in “Not My Father’s Son”, McKensy’s Lola hits a sudden patch of stillness and it’s devastating: “And the best part of me/ Is what he wouldn’t see.” Sitting in the fourth row, I could see the tears welling in Lola’s eyes and then streaming down her cheeks. How can you feel all that and still sing? But McKensy can certainly sing: his warm tone covers a wide range.

With his bright tenor, Sayer Roberts also shows off excellent vocal — and acting — chops as Charlie.

And these stars are supported by a strong ensemble.

In the best convention in the show, Lola is shadowed by her very own  back-up singers, a quartet of drag queens called The Angels — sub Makayla Moore, Andrew J. Hampton, Joshua Lalisan, and Ryan Maschke the night I was there. They’re sexy, exploding with attitude, and great dancers.

Throughout, Julie Tomaino’s choreography is club-dance stellar. Duck walk, baby! And hips! And hips! Let’s see those splits! It’s complicated and so much fun.

In terms of performance, I also particularly enjoyed Andrew Wheeler as George, the factory foreman. Wheeler capitalizes big time on the giddy juxtaposition of George’s laconic conservatism and his growing fascination with the more exciting alternative Lola is presenting.

In the ensemble, Victor Hunter stood out for me. Early on, Hunter appears briefly as Charlie’s pal Harry and his easy charm is right there. But, even when Hunter’s playing a nameless worker in the factory, he is giving it, throwing his lanky frame into Tomaino’s choreography with increasing abandon.

The physical production is filled in right to the edges of the drawing, if you know what I mean. In Pam Johnson’s set, a handsome wall of brick and windows opens into a detailed factory and transforms seamlessly into other locations. Under Ken Cormier’s direction, the band is solid. John Webber’s lighting is evocative. (I particularly loved a simple cue: the hot spotlight he trains on Lola as she sings her show-stopping Act 2 ballad.) And Barbara Clayden’s costumes are knockouts. I know I could fit into the Angels’ Act 1 fetish wear!

Politically, there are a couple of blips in Fierstein’s book. In what’s supposed to be an act of recognition, Charlie addresses Lola by her boy name — but is that really how you show respect? And Charlie emphasizes that Lola is the bravest man he’s known — as if achievement as a male is the most important compliment.

Ultimately, though, the underlying strength of this show is its celebration of solidarity. I could identify very few other queer folk in the audience the night I was there but, as a gay man, there was something moving about sitting in a crowd that seemed to be mostly composed of grey- and white-haired straight couples, who were raucously supportive of Lola and, by implication, all the gender nonconformists she represents.

There’s a cultural backlash among social conservatives, who have decided trans folk are easy targets of hatred and ridicule — and symbolic representatives of all us who are not heteronormative. But fuck ‘em! We’ve come a long, way baby! And shows like this help us to defend our turf.

Thanks to director Barbara Tomasic and her team for doing such a seamless job with this production.

KINKY BOOTS Book by Harvey Fierstein. Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Based on the Miramax motion picture Kinky Boots, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. Directed by Barbara Tomasic. An Arts Club production. On Friday, June 17 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. Running until July 31. Tickets

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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