And it happened last week when I caught Kinky Boots shortly after its Broadway opening, upon which the show received strong, if not stellar, reviews. Count me among the uncoverted. There's no question that Kinky Boots has its bespangled heart in the right place. And there are some set pieces that are genuinely thrilling, most of which involve the delightful Billy Porter in what will likely become the role of a lifetime for him.
In fact, the only times when I felt Kinky Boots was working were when either Billy Porter or Annaleigh Ashford were on stage. (I likewise felt that Pippin only worked when either Andrea Martin or Rachel Bay Jones were involved.) Kinky Boots just wasn't holding me at all until Porter, as the resident drag queen and free spirit, made his first entrance, and suddenly I was in, albeit sporadically. Porter is a fiery wonder during his songs, particularly during his kick-ass 11 o'clock number, "Hold Me in Your Heart," although he had a strong tendency to overdo his line readings during his scenes. Ashford, as the unlikely and eventual love interest for the leading male character, was a spark of engaging, rich characterization in a show seriously lacking in same. Porter and Ashford almost make the Kinky Boots journey worth taking.
There are three main culprits in the musical miasma that is Kinky Boots: librettist Harvey Fierstein, composer/lyricist Cyndi Lauper, and director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. As you may know, if you've seen the 2005 film "Kinky Boots," the plot here involves a young English man who inherits a failing shoe company from his father. To save the company, he decides to make quality shoes for drag queens. An extremely promising setup, but one that Fierstein squanders with leaden exposition, surface emotion, and manufactured drama, although there are periodic flashes of the Fierstein wit. Characters appear, sing a big number that seems to be setting them up for a major role in the plot, and then disappear completely. (See Medda in Fierstein's Newsies.) Admittedly, there are also some very sweet, heartfelt moments along the way, particularly when drag queen Lola reveals her past, and her real name, to Charlie, our male lead.
Whereas act one of Kinky Boots is pedestrian, act two is downright preachy. I mean puh-reachy. At times it feels like there are more life lessons than sequin glimmers bursting from the stage. What's worse, the second act involves character choices that ultimately reveal that Fierstein hasn't really done his job of setting up who these people are so that we can understand the choices that they make. Charlie in particular is a cipher, with no discernible characteristics. Because we don't really know who he is, we're not really sure where, for instance, his anger is coming from. The normally remarkable Stark Sands is wasted here in a colorless role. Mitchell fails Sands here as well. In Charlie's big act-two solo, "The Soul of a Man," Sands is forced to make mindless rock-star gestures, like something left over from American Idiot, because Mitchell hasn't given him anything meaningful to do during the song.
I think the specific combination of Fierstein and Mitchell is an unfortunate one here. In the absence of a strong directorial hand, like that of Arthur Laurents (La Cage aux Folles) or John Doyle (A Catered Affair), there's no one on hand to give Fierstein focus, or to rein in his excesses. Mitchell is clearly not up to the task. After this and the equally scattered Legally Blonde, I can't say that I'm very big on Mitchell's prospects as a director/choreographer.
Cyndi Lauper's score comprises some rather dull, cliché-ridden ballads and a few moderately rousing uptempo songs. Lauper's rhyme schemes are either lazy (pairing "escape" with "case," and "hubris" with "excuses") or facile: "It's not just a factory, this is my family." It got to the point where, as soon as I heard the word "hero" at the end of one line, I knew "zero" would occur somewhere in the near future. I was actually waiting for the old "life/strife" chestnut, but fortunately that one never materialized. (Can Mayor Bloomberg, or Governor Cuomo, please pass a law that, before any further pop musicans decide that they automatically have the chops to write musical theater songs, that they have to pass a quality test or attend a BMI workshop? I'm only half-joking here.)
I can see the comments now from the Kinky Boots faithful: "Well, if the crowds were going wild, and the critics liked it, too, doesn't that mean that you're wrong?" No, it doesn't. It means that Kinky Boots didn't work for me, and I'm putting my observations out there as part of the larger conversation about the show. I'm sure than many people will disagree with me, and will thoroughly enjoy the show.
I didn't. It's as simple as that.