Kinky Boots review (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

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Rightly or wrongly, “hummability” has long been considered a key measure of a musical theatre score’s success. “Catchy” tunes are apparently the most preferable, while “I can’t remember a single tune” is just about the most damning thing you can say about a composer’s work.

There’s an old, simple and fairly obvious trick those composers use to send an audience out of a theatre humming the tunes — repetition. The mega musicals of the 1980s repeated their major themes ad nauseam (you can count the major melodic ideas in Les Miserables on two hands), but it’s a tradition that stretches all the way back to Jerome Kern’s Showboat, with its seemingly endless reprises of Ol’ Man River.

That’s not the trick Cyndi Lauper uses in her debut musical theatre score for Kinky Boots — there are very few repeated themes, and not much of a connecting musical through-line — but it’s difficult not to leave the theatre at intermission humming the keep-it-simple-stupid act one finale, Everybody Say Yeah.

The spirit of Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 British film of the same name, itself based on a true story, is best embodied in this number — a direct, overtly celebratory, optimistic and uplifting ensemble number, bringing together drag queens, and the village people (not those Village People) and factory workers of Northampton’s Price and Son shoe factory.

That shoe factory sits at the core of this narrative. Charlie Price (Toby Francis) has just moved to London and is on the cusp of marrying his long-term girlfriend Nicola (Teagan Wouters) when he learns that his father has died. He immediately returns to Northampton to take over the family business to discover that the factory is on the brink of a total financial collapse.

While in London, attempting to save the business, Charlie has a chance encounter with drag queen Lola (Callum Francis), and is inspired to find a new niche market for the factory: large, elaborate, towering women’s boots made to be worn by men.

Lola and Charlie join forces, but is Northampton ready for Lola? And is Charlie really ready to work alongside somebody as unique and fearless as Lola?

It’s not the most complex of narratives, but it proves to be a very compelling story, told with flair.

The show’s biggest selling point — the score, penned by a bona fide pop legend — also happens to be its weakest attribute. No doubt Lauper knows how to write a beloved, sophisticated and “catchy” pop tune, and there are a decent handful of those in the show. But a genuinely great musical theatre score? Not quite.

The lyrics are serviceable at best, and don’t propel the narrative forward in any meaningful way.

That doesn’t mean Lauper can’t hit moments of poignancy and insight — the ballad Not My Father’s Son is a wonderful moment of introspection in an out-and-proud show — and disco-inspired numbers, like the Raise You Up/Just Be finale, literally bring audiences to their feet at every performance.

But although it’s more or less the right score for this show, it pales in comparison to plenty of other contemporary musical theatre scores (including Tim Minchin’s ingenious score for Matilda, which Lauper inexplicably beat to the Tony Award for Best Score).

Harvey Fierstein’s book, and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography and direction, move at a very fast clip, and the storytelling hits every mark with maximum efficiency. It’s full of tiny moments of clever, finely-calibrated theatrical shorthand, designed to elicit an emotional response from an audience.

Mitchell certainly knows how to stage a musical number, and he manages to explore the two clashing worlds of Lola and Charlie with equal success on both sides. There’s real electricity, and unexpected spectacle, when those two worlds come together.

But the whole show lives or dies on the strength of its two leads, who have to bring something organic to this well-oiled, feel-good machine. Callum Francis and Toby Francis (the pair aren’t related) succeed entirely as Lola and Charlie, and their chemistry is palpable as they come to embrace each other and their similarities.

Toby is wonderfully endearing as Charlie, and brings a great deal of emotional heft to the role. He also manages to turn one of the show’s weaker numbers, Soul of a Man, into a highlight thanks to his exciting, warm and idiosyncratic rock tenor.

Lola is the far showier role — you’d have to be Fred Nile to resist a drag queen this fabulous — and Callum is entirely at home in her skin and six-inch heels. He exudes a seemingly dangerous, but never threatening, androgynous sex appeal, and manages the comedy of the show brilliantly.

There’s also great support from Sophie Wright as the quirky and clever factory worker Lauren.

Lauren is just one of the many outsiders who populate this show, which, over the course of two hours, becomes a near-impossible to resist celebration of difference. It even sends the audience out of the theatre with the straight-forward lyric: “Just be who you want to be.”

Kinky Boots has a simple message, but its equal doses of heart and glitter make for a pretty potent theatrical combination.

Featured image by Matthew Murphy

One response to “Kinky Boots review (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

  1. When we saw Kinky Boots in Melbourne December I had the distinct impression it wasn’t going that well – half empty theatre (Monday night) and follow up e-mails offering cheap tix if you wanted to see the show again. But instinctively we knew it’s a show that’ll kill ’em in Sydney.
    You’re spot on about Callum – absolutely brilliant as Lola, and Toby is a magnificent Charlie.
    But what my wife and I both noticed in the Melbourne show was the supporting cast of factory workers – all normal sized people – some a bit tubby, some short, some too tall and so on.
    Contrasted nicely to the stunning cast of perfectly proportioned drag queens!
    Which, I guess, is what the director had in mind.

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