Kinky Boots: Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto

Kinky BootsAlthough Kinky Boots misses many high notes, the high energy songs and Toronto’s exuberant cast at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto leaves the audience grinning from start to finish.

There were many reasons why I wanted to see the musical Kinky Boots: primarily because of the attention it’s gathered since its Tony-award-winning debut on Broadway in 2013, but also because of my interest as a trans ally who was curious to dissect it for its thoughts on gender expression and identity. I had the pleasure of seeing the Toronto production just last night, and there’s no denying it was a fun performance, with toe-tapping melodies and jaw-dropping acrobatics by men wearing six-inch heels.

Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price (Graham Scott Fleming), recent heir to a failing shoe factory, who takes the risk of turning to a niche market to save the factory and its workers: that of drag queens. With the help of Lola (Alan Mingo Jr.), fabulous London queen, and Lauren (AJ Bridel), quirky factory worker turned partner with an infatuation for Charlie, they take on the design and creation of a line of extravagant boots strong enough to support the weight of grown men in time for a Milan fashion show.

The actors were obviously having a blast performing this high-energy show, and it was hard not to be taken in with their enthusiasm. Lola and her Angels most certainly stole the show with their high kicks, high heels, and high notes. There was no end to their energy as they pranced around the stage, singing and dancing in their skimpy, shiny costumes and satisfactorily overwhelming makeup. Be prepared for lots of glitter, folks; lots of glitter and lots of red. The colour of both their costumes and their characters perfectly contrasted with the drab Northampton shoe factory, all monochromatic set-wise goes until Lola settles in.

Graham Scott Fleming seemed to settle into his role as Charlie as the night went on; his insecurity is cute, endearing, and his voice strong in the soaring melodies. However, Charlie as a character was the weakest in the show. He has no ambitions of his own, no real desires, and his main character arc involves “learning to accept people as they are”. Yet another story about a white, straight, cisgendered man being applauded for accepting a queer person. In a way, Lola’s only use as a character is to develop Charlie’s character. Not a great comment for a show that claims to be breaking barriers on Broadway.

Harvey Fierstein’s book is the show’s weak point. A hastily-added, hastily-resolved romantic subplot between Lauren and Charlie, problematic quips about gender identity (“Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their mind.” Reinforcing the gender binary much, Harvey?), and a weaker second act are all on the agenda. In fact, the conflict in act 2 seems entirely contrived, with an argument between small-minded factory worker Don and Lola taking up much of the act, as well as the obligatory “accepting people for who they are” spiel.

ABC News called Cyndi Lauper’s score “the best Broadway score in years”, a statement with which I have to disagree. As a fun, energetic score by a beloved pop writer, it was great. Only when Lauper tried to imitate the typically flashy Broadway sound did it almost drift into pastiche. Her opening number in particular is bland, your typical formulaic opening number to introduce the cast. But it’s when she falls back into her niche genre, 80’s pop music, that the music soars. Songs like “History of Wrong Guys” (performed by the hilarious AJ Bridel and the only redeeming element of Obligatory Romantic Subplot) could easily have been performed at one of her concerts. Perhaps they’re not the strongest musically, but you can certainly tell that these songs were fun to write and remain fun to perform.

Despite Fierstein’s problematic book and underdeveloped characters and message, and Lauper’s often predictable score, the high energy of the show and the big numbers featuring Lola and her angels (including the optimistic end anthem about supporting those who are different) left me grinning for the rest of the night. But ultimately, Kinky Boots tells the story of just another privileged white guy who makes the astonishing, life-changing decision to indeed not be a capitalist asshole.

Kinky Boots will continue its extended run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Ontario until November 8, 2015.

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