A wise drama teacher once told me half of all British plays are about class or tradition, while half of all American plays are a cry for love and acceptance. “Kinky Boots” was written by Americans about British factory workers in an industrial town, and sure enough: It mingles both topics smoothly and smartly.
Composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper and book writer Harvey Fierstein adapted the 2005 movie that made a star of Chiwetel Ejiofor but otherwise made little splash. They have improved on the quiet original with a show that kicks up a lot of noise – though never too much – and succeeds on all fronts.
The class/tradition subplot follows Charlie Price (Steven Booth), who inherits a dying shoe factory that has employed locals for four generations. He plans to flee to a marketing job in London with Nicola (Grace Stockdale), but responsibility calls him home.
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Simon (J. Harrison Ghee) escaped a similar small town, a dismissive father and his dad’s dream that he’d become a boxer. He has transformed himself into Lola, a glamorous cross-dresser fronting a male chorus of Angels. They may save Price’s factory, if the workers agree to convert their line to ornate “kinky boots” for drag queens.
You can see this story heading toward a point of mutual acceptance, but the journey is a blast. Lauper covers traditional theatrical ground – the yearning ballad, the comic “wrong boy for me” number (delivered well by Lindsay Nicole Chambers), the 11th-hour breakup – but her songs also work as stand-alone pop anthems and foot-stompers.
Fierstein’s script doesn’t make a villain of anyone. Nicola’s plan to turn the factory into condos seems reasonable if misguided, and faux-macho worker Don (Joe Coots) has lived with prejudice so long (in a town that reinforces it) that he barely knows he has any. Witty lines abound: Tired Lola, planning to wow another audience, goes out to face “a roomful of people who are waiting to feel comparatively normal.”
Ghee fully inhabits this role without overselling it, from bravura disco numbers in drag to tender moments when he speaks of boyhood. (Perhaps his own move away from Fayetteville inspired him. This real-life pastor’s son, who has said he has “an amazing relationship with my father,” has done drag for five years.)
Booth handles the less flashy but no less meaty leading role with equal skill, rising to his second-act showstopper “Soul of a Man” with pop-star energy but no bombast. Just as Ghee shows us Lola’s negative qualities, his vanity and selfishness, Booth shows us Charlie’s insecurity and weakness.
Jerry Mitchell won a Tony for his clever choreography, which varies from assembly-line hijinks to dance-floor moves. (The six Angels deliver those with zest.) I was even more impressed with his direction: He’s content to have silence and stillness onstage, to let characters sit together quietly before cutting loose again. Think how rarely that happens in musicals.
The five players in the orchestra pit rock when necessary without overwhelming us. For once, the Belk Theater sound mix seemed close to ideal Tuesday, possibly because the cast doesn’t hammer the numbers. When your message has this much power, you want to make sure everyone in the audience can understand it.
A British shoe factory on the ropes finds prosperity by making footwear for drag queens. This is the national tour of the musical by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The show also returns Dec. 29-Jan. 3.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000; blumenthalarts.org.