Charlie and the Kinky Footwear Factory, the Musical

Charlie (Steven Booth), Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) and Lola's Angels take the Milan fashion world by storm in Kinky Boots.

Charlie (Steven Booth), Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) and Lola's Angels take the Milan fashion world by storm in Kinky Boots.

It’s tricky to adapt a film into a musical when the original movie included memorable songs that you can’t use. That was the case with Kinky Boots, the 2013 Broadway hit now playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre courtesy of SHN.  The central character of Lola, indelibly portrayed onscreen by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a drag chanteuse who sings unforgettable covers throughout the movie, including  “Whatever Lola Wants” and (inevitably) the Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

But if you’re looking for someone to create original showstoppers to replace preexisting ones, you could do a lot worse than Cyndi Lauper, the quirky singer-songwriter who gave us “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and other ’80s hits. In her first time writing for Broadway, Lauper became the first solo woman composer to win a Tony Award for best original score. That was one of six 2013 Tonys  Kinky Boots earned, including best musical (beating out Matilda the Musical, which will come to town next summer).

Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) faces off with homophobic factory worker Don (Joe Coots) in Kinky Boots.
Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) faces off with homophobic factory worker Don (Joe Coots).

And who better to adapt the story to the stage than Harvey Fierstein,  whose Torch Song Trilogy and book for the musical La Cage aux Folles were also about drag performers, and who wrote the stage adaptation of the movie musical Newsies. (Fierstein, also an actor, last played San Francisco in 2010 as a raspy Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.)

In fact, Kinky Boots is a study in how to do a musical adaptation right. Based on the 2005 film of the same name (which in turn was loosely inspired by a true story), it’s the heartwarming tale of Charlie (Steven Booth in this stage version), a young English shoe factory owner trying to save his century-old family business by teaming up with a drag queen to make fabulous fetish boots—or, as the endearingly out-of-his-depth businessman puts it, “women’s shoes for women who are men.”

While preserving the best lines from the film, Fierstein and company cleverly make everything bigger and bolder, as befits a world where people burst spontaneously into song. For example, what was originally an arm-wrestling match between Lola and homophobic factory worker Don (Joe Coots) turns into a hilarious boxing bout, complete with cross-dressing ring girls. A cameo role of a jaded colleague (Mike Longo) gets fleshed out enough to warrant his own song before he disappears for good.

Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) basking in her own fabulousness in Kinky Boots.
Kyle Taylor Parker’s Lola is a fabulous force of nature.

The Lola in this version always brings along her own back-up dancers, a delightful sextet of drag divas who make huge, applause-worthy entrances in gaudy outfits by Gregg Barnes. As for Lola herself, she’s a force of nature, played with jubilant joie de vivre by Kyle Taylor Parker, who performed as part of Lola’s retinue in the original Broadway production. Parker’s Lola is more relentlessly upbeat than Ejiofor’s melancholy and commanding presence in the film, but he’s riveting. Lauper gives him several disco-style showstoppers that practically tear the roof off the place, helped along by director Jerry Mitchell’s gymnastic choreography, all delivered in six-inch heels. (The factory conveyor belt in David Rockwell’s impressively detailed set gets a particularly memorable workout.)

The part of Lauren, an outspoken but faithful employee with a crush on the boss, is turned into a hilariously awkward role delivered with quirky charm by Lindsay Nicole Chambers, especially in her goofy, lovestruck new wave number, “The History of Wrong Guys.” My only complaint is that I wish she had more to do.  Still, she fares better than Charlie’s glamorous but unsupportive fiancée, Nicola (Grace Stockdale), a lover of fancy things who doesn’t understand what he’s doing at all; her role is both slimmer and more sympathetic here than in the original.

Not all the changes are perfect; the arc of Charlie’s self-sabotage and redemption is accelerated to the point where it’s a wonder that the emotional payoff is still there. Any quibbles are soon forgotten, however, in the wondrous excess of the grand finale. Lauper’s songs are delightful throughout—deftly blending rock, disco, tango, R&B and Broadway styles —and the cast wails them with an infectiously joyful noise.

Charlie (Steven Booth) and Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) celebrate their first pair of kinky boots in Kinky Boots.
Charlie (Steven Booth) and Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker) celebrate their first pair of kinky boots.

A recurring theme in the musical involves Charlie and Lola bonding over  the knowledge that their fathers were disappointed in them. That father-son thread is cleverly woven into Mitchell’s staging in some wonderful moments, as when  the child Charlie (Anthony Picarello) runs down the factory steps and — while  momentarily hidden by a passing obstruction — seems to magically turn into the adult Charlie.

Lola is a particularly inspirational figure here, soundly rejecting his own insecurities about his awkward, small-town origins and choosing to “live out loud.” That  message adds depth  to a show that was originally more about saving a money-losing business. People’s livelihoods are on the line, sure, but ultimately it’s less about that than being true to yourself in the face of all doubters and naysayers. What else are you going to do—give up shoe biz?

Kinky Boots runs through December 28, 2014 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit shnsf.com.

All photos by Matthew Murphy.

 

Charlie and the Kinky Footwear Factory, the Musical 5 December,2014Sam Hurwitt

Author

Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News in addition to his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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