Broadway choreographers must be kicking themselves for not insisting their shows take place in a factory environment. Because once you see the dance moves that happen on the shoe factory's conveyor belts in Kinky Boots, now at Playhouse Square, you'll want them to be included in every musical. (Okay, maybe not Oklahoma!)
This bold, brassy and sassy musical spares no wattage as it flashes a galaxy of shiny, thigh-high leg holsters, in service to a story that is not nearly as inventive as the footwear. Indeed, the book by Harvey Fierstein and the music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper sometimes feel like they were put together on a rolling production-line belt — then drenched in a shower of thumping light and sound effects.
As a result, KB is the kind of Broadway orgasm that often satisfies in the moment but leaves you wondering what it was all about shortly thereafter. Sure, it's about Charlie, the son of a man who owns a shoe company and dedicates his life to crafting men's shoes. Until, that is, the old man's wing tips go toes up early in the show. Charlie takes over the enterprise but doesn't have a clue how to help the floundering shoe outfit, um, last.
Until, that is, he breaks up a fight on the rough streets of Northhampton, England. That's when he meets Lola, a drag queen with a thing for stiletto boots that extend all the way up north to Berwick-upon-Tweed (if you know what I mean). In a trice, Charlie is offering Lola a job as head shoe designer because his shoes supposedly aren't strong enough to support a man's weight. News flash: Generously sized women also wear high heels! But never mind, we've got a musical to assemble here.
Apparently in a rush to launch Lauper's stylish and slick pop anthems, Fierstein and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell skate past a very interesting but unexplored subplot involving Lola's new career. How were her designs created? What were her mistakes? How happy was the accountant that every pair of boots leaving the factory now used 10 times more leather as the old shoes, no doubt with a price tag to match?
Instead, Lola walks in as her shy male self, Simon, and magically the boots start appearing. And this is where the show gets everything right, especially in numbers such as "Sex Is in the Heel" when Lauper's words spill out in a tribute to the towering creations: "Jack it up 'cause I'm no flat tire/Mack it up six inches higher."
Soon, Charlie and Simon are sharing daddy stories, each seeing himself as a failure in his father's eyes (Simon's father trained him to be a boxer). This comes across tellingly in "Not My Father's Son," a tender ballad that gives the production its one real moment of honest emotion.
At other times, Lauper and company reach for deep feeling that just isn't there. In Act 2 when Steven Booth as Charlie sings "Soul of a Man," he's trying to struggle with the legacy (no pun intended) left to him by his father. But Booth, who is affable and rather endearing throughout, strains over this song until it starts to whimper.
In the star-making role of Simon/Lola, slim and sensuous Darius Harper pumps plenty of vocal energy into his songs. Early on, he and his six beauteous drag queen Angels rock out to "Land of Lola," as they trill, "I've got a lacy silken feel/With arms as hard as steel." While Harper's guns are more silk than steel, he struts his "dragitude" with a fierceness that eventually convinces the other factory workers to work with him.
Among those workers are the foreman Don (a believably hefty and coarse Joe Coots), who mocks Lola before his inevitable conversion. And assembly line drone Lauren (the amusing and down-to-earth Lindsay Nicole Chambers) catches the imagination of Charlie by suggesting the factory start chunking out boots for the "under-served niche market" of men who love wearing women's sky-high footwear.
Along the way, amidst all the glorious fun in this kick-ass, um, bootenanny, there are moments that land with a dull thud. Charlie's early duet with pal Harry, "Take What You Got," is a needless bit of exposition. And the second-act scene where Simon toys with Don in a boxing match (to prove who is the better man) fails to convince. Even with some boxing training, this Simon with the pipe cleaner arms would be mashed to a pulp by this Don.
Nevertheless, this ain't Raging Bull, so verisimilitude be damned. Kinky Boots is actually a lot more like The Full Monty, which Mitchell also directed on Broadway. Just replace laid-off English working guys as male strippers with about-to-be-laid-off English working guys in patent leather, over-the-knee skyscrapers — as they are in the finale — and you've got yourself a show.
And thanks to Fierstein's witty one-liners and Lauper's often infectiously catchy tunes, this production will send you off rebooted and quite happy.