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Feel-good ‘Kinky Boots’ is a step in the ‘Billy Elliot’ direction

Stark Sands (left) Billy Porter star 'Kinky Boots' Bank AmericTheatre. | Sean Williams

Stark Sands (left) and Billy Porter star in "Kinky Boots" at the Bank of America Theatre. | Sean Williams

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‘KINKY BOOTS’

RECOMMENDED

When: Through Nov. 4

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago

Tickets: $33-$100

Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com

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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:34AM



Forget about the red licorice and Milk Duds. The lobby of Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where “Kinky Boots” is set to open in April, might very well have to be retrofitted to make room for a shoe concession — a little boutique where men, women and “those who have yet to decide” can do some serious shopping for 2½-foot tall, shiny patent leather boots perched on heavily reinforced stiletto heels.

While no one would mistake this new musical as groundbreaking in any way, it is an ideally crafted, altogether feel-good show — something of a “La Cage aux Folles” for the recession-plagued, anti-bullying, “it will get better” generation. And its solid if predictable storytelling (Harvey Fierstein’s take on the popular little British film comedy of 2005), its accomplished and varied score (an impressive first Broadway effort by Cyndi Lauper, that petite paragon of pop, who has penned several numbers that are sure to become keepers), its conveyor belt-smooth flow (courtesy of director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell), and its strong, winningly genuine cast, all conjoin to make it an engaging entertainment.

“Kinky Boots” is no “Billy Elliot,” but it certainly follows in the tradition of that show as it spins a story of solid British working-class types opening themselves up to something just a little bit outside their traditional comfort zone, and thriving on the change of heart that comes with it.

It is set primarily in the brick-walled, Victorian-era shoe factory of Price & Son in Northampton, England, where five generations of Prices have crafted solidly made brogues, and where in recent years sales have slumped to crisis levels, and nine out of 10 similar factories have closed. Only the innovators have survived.

Charlie Price (graceful, earnest, full-voiced Stark Sands) has already made a shaky break with the family business, heading to London with his upwardly mobile fiancee to work in real estate marketing. But then, unexpectedly, his dad dies, and he heads home to find all the factory workers he grew up with faced with unemployment.

Goaded on by one of them — Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), the feisty girl who thinks he’s a bit of a twit, but also could easily fall for him — he determines to rescue the business. And his earlier chance encounter in London with Lola proves crucial.

Charlie, who tried to rescue Lola during a mugging, didn’t realize “she” was a drag queen rather than a woman in distress. But ultimately (though not before plenty of rejection and pain), she turns out to be the key to the transformation of the shoe line, as well as to the attitudes towards “difference” of everyone involved. Before it’s all over, both Charlie and Lola (aka Simon) also find a certain peace in themselves despite never having achieved acceptance from their dads.

Lauper’s score, with its conversational lyrics and music that deftly reflects the characters and situations (the ideal arrangements and orchestrations are by Stephen Oremus), features several big production numbers, with “Sex Is in the Heel” kickstarting the first act after some “La Cage”-like retreads of drag numbers, and the brilliantly choreographed “Everybody Say Yeah” supplying a terrific first act finale. Not surprisingly, Lauper is at her very best when writing songs she could have sung herself — particularly “The History of Wrong Guys,” with which the utterly winning and easily funny Ashford easily stops the show. (It’s a classic.)

The show’s second act, which features everything from a playfully staged boxing match between Lola and Don (beefy, lovable Daniel Stewart Sherman), to a confessional aria for Charlie (“The Soul of a Man”), to the story’s heartbreaking penultimate number, “Hold Me in Your Heart” (performed beautifully by Porter), moves toward a big runway finale (“Raise You Up/Just Be”).

Invariably you can see where every moment in the show but one (I won’t disclose it here) is headed well before it happens. The preaching about women being more satisfied by drag queens can grow tiresome. And adding some sort of solidarity number for the workers wouldn’t be a bad idea. Nor would making Charlie’s fiancee, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), a bit more two-dimensional.

But the show — with a superbly handsome set by David Rockwell, lighting by Kenneth Posner and costumes by Gregg Barnes — is in very solid shape. And there is little chance of it breaking a heel on the way to New York.



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