Kinky Boots (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne)

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The Al Hirschfeld Theatre, home of the original New York City production of the Cyndi Lauper-composed Kinky Boots, is about 300 metres away across Eighth Avenue from the Schubert Theatre, the Broadway home of the Tim Minchin-tuned Matilda.

The two flashy stage adaptations by novice music theatre composers opened within a week of each other in 2013. Kinky Boots would go on to score 13 Tony Award nominations; Matilda 12. Them Boots ended up with six statues, winning Best Musical and Best Score for Lauper in an upset, locking out the Aussie songwriter.

I demonstrate this comparative knowledge not merely to (deeply) embarrass myself but because, as I took my seat in Her Majesty’s Theatre for the Australian premiere of Kinky Boots last night, I couldn’t help but think of Matilda, its Australian tour still playing at the Princess Theatre about, weirdly, 300 metres up Little Bourke Street.

I’ve always believed Cyndi stole that Tony from Our Tim. And now I have the proof: the Australian production of Kinky Boots, every bit as slick and shiny and appealing as the Broadway original, isn’t half the show of a block away. Well, a little more than half I suppose. Minchin and his little bookworm were, indeed, robbed.

These distinctly British tales actually come from very different places, of course. Matilda has a celebrated novel from Roald Dahl at its heart and was workshopped well away from commercial theatres by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Kinky Boots draws on a middling British film of minor acclaim, drafting Lauper, book writer Harvey Fierstein and director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell to package a musical treatment for Broadway’s audience of middle America tourists.

In a world when a drag queen wins an Emmy Award for best TV presenter, and a complicatedly queer musical like Fun Home can play 600+ shows on Broadway and clean out the Tonys, Kinky Boots and its intolerance-to-acceptance story of drag queens colliding with small-town Britain isn’t nearly as daring as it thinks it is.

Not that many will be disappointed by the up to $150 outlay for a ticket. This glitter bomb of infectious pop tunes, high-kicking routines and sentimental story is altogether diverting. The predominantly Australian cast is well drilled and globally unparalleled, with a couple of exceptional star-making standouts.

But if we’re to judge artistic merit on these things, for what it’s worth … Fierstein’s calculable book is uneven, from its racing opening exposition (a common crime in translating from source material) to the more flabby second half; Mitchell’s direction has some awkward transitions in a story about transition (though his choreo work is captivating in the big production numbers), not helped by a surprisingly unyielding set by David Rockwell; and Lauper’s songs, a ’90s-esque pastiche of Smooth FM tracks, many of them terrific, lack the sharp lyrical wit of Minchin’s work (sorry, I’m bitter) and, with arranger and orchestrator Stephen Oremus, offer not much of a musical through-line for the story — it can sound like a jukebox musical, even though it isn’t.

But who cares about all of that, right?

Go for Callum Francis as Lola, the damaged transgender performer with a heart of gold, whose magnetic presence is conspicuous in too many scenes of absence. Francis, who harks not far from his character’s escaped home town, was understudying the role in London when the creative team plucked him to lead the Australian production and gave him the chance to make it all his own. He does that gorgeously, with arresting physicality, reserves of pathos and a striking singing voice. That’s put to most memorable use in Not My Father’s Son, the best number from the show, and the I Am What I Am-esque act-two showstopper Hold Me In Your Heart (it’s no surprise La Cage aux Folles is also on the book-writing resume of Fierstein). Importing the Lola role was the smartest move producers made.

Toby Francis (no relation) has so much less to work with as Charlie, at times a rather blank prop for the characters around him, who’s also trying to escape his unwanted childhood for brighter lights only to be drawn back to his father’s shoe factory after his death. It’s a big break and a big stage for Francis and his easy charm and sweet vocals fill out the role as well as you can imagine.

The other standout is Sophie Wright, who is very funny as Lauren, one corner of Charlie’s love triangle. There are nice comic turns in minor roles from Daniel Williston (Don) and Nathan Carter (George), too, and Teagan Wouters gives nagging fiancée Nicola a little depth. From Lola’s agile angels, fabulously frocked (and booted) by costume designer Gregg Barnes, to the ragtag factory workers, there isn’t a casting flaw on stage.

“You can change the world when you change your mind,” Lola explains to one particularly frock-phobic factory heavy. But Kinky Boots, like this review, will change very few. It is predictable and, unquestionably, predictably crowd-pleasing. But if you haven’t seen the show a block away …

Featured image by Matthew Murphy

13 responses to “Kinky Boots (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne)

  1. Kinky Boots is just a feelgood story and a great theatre production the songs were great and the dancing by the cast was fabulous. I go just to sit back and be entertained by the the cast, songs, costumes and scenery nothing else.
    I’ve seen Matilda too, completely different story and also just as entertaining.
    Let’s not nit pick people.
    These performers put in long hours to entertain the public, so you’re trying to compare apples to oranges.
    They are both great productions.

    1. I just loved Kinky Boots!! I thought Lola was played so brilliantly – I could not take my eyes off him whenever he was on stage – so seemingly effortlessly talented and charismatic. I did not see why it should be compared to Matilda in Jason Whittaker’s review – neither take away from the other. I found the Kinky Boots story very engaging and the music very infectious.

  2. What’s with the comparison to Maltilda? I just don’t get it. I judge a musical on how it makes me feel as I walk out the door. And let me tell you Kinky Boots made me feel good. Real good.

    With all the closed minds showing their “true colours” about marriage equality in Australia right now, we can all do with a dose of the message this fabulous show offers. You really can change the world when you change your mind.

    Ignore the reviewers and go see Kinky Boots. You won’t be able to get the smile off your face.

  3. Just tell me if Kinky Boots will come to Sydney please ?
    I will go and see for myself. Love Cyndi Lauper, loved the film, and love a good musical. Also loved Matilda.

    Maggie

  4. I saw Kinky on Broadway and I experienced one of the best nights of theatre in a long time (the “mid American” audience sledge is wildly off the mark) . The lead (Lola) channeled Tim Curry’s “Frankn”, and I felt that it would be impossible to replicate that performance when the show traveled- gladly it seems I was wrong. Looking forward to seeing the Melbourne production now.

    Might also pop in to see Matilda – for a completely different experience (lol).

  5. Be wary of demonstrating your (lack) of comparative knowledge, Jason. I would much prefer a review of the actual performance, than a whinge about past accolades, or lack thereof.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed Kinky Boots – and Matilda. Both are worth seeing, but let’s look at the one being reviewed. Kinky Boots was a wonderful emotionally driven, sparkly and fabulous show. The characters were all wonderful- but Lola was drop dead amazing. I left the theatre feeling the love

  7. The author seems to be confused about which show he was reviewing. Maybe these are the only two musicals he has seen?

    Though I admit I have not yet seen Kinky Boots, I have seen Matilda. And never have I seen so much money lavished upon a story whose characters I could not care less about. If you want to compare two shows, how about a comparison of Matilda with Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? (The latter wins.)

    Kinky Boots the film had a big heart that I found lacking in Matilda. I look forward to seeing the show, because the word of mouth is that it is a fantastic, fun, feel-good musical.

  8. I agree with the review. I wished myself away several times as the wooden performance of Charlie made me cringe. What was with the constant fist into palm thumping in his big number? Did he not know what to do with his hands as he sang? Lola was fabulous though and so were the dancers. The fight scene was well done. I thought the production was struggling with a predictable and awkward script. I’ve sat through many far better high school productions. Thank goodness my ticket was free. Matilda was robbed.

  9. actually reading this again it is clear the reviewer did not understand Kinky Boots at all….transgender???? and it is a not a drag show sir….please write about the show……or is it your world?

    1. Your bewilderment is a little stretched. He’s hardly the first person to compare the shows, since, presumably, the voters at the Tony’s had to when they cast their ballots, given that the two shows in competition with each-other…. Hell, he can compare Kinky Boots to Medea if he has a point to make – though comparing it to Matilda would be more fun.
      Regardless, I enjoyed Matilda (she had me at Crime and Punishment…), though, sadly, they missed some of the more magical stuff in the UK version; and I’m looking forward to Kinky Boots.
      I suspect Book of Mormon is the one that will really win me!

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