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Cyndi Lauper's 'Kinky Boots' debut: Anything but a drag

The pop diva teams up with Harvey Fierstein on a crowd-pleasing movie-turned-musical

By Bryan Reesman
Special to MSN Music

Cyndi
Cyndi Lauper with choreographer Jerry Mitchell (left) and Harvey Fierstein (right)

NEW YORK -- "Ladies, gentlemen and those of you who've yet to make up your minds ..."

Drag queens are nothing to new to Broadway, but the last couple of years have seen increasingly flamboyant ones strut their stuff across the Great White Way. Another recent movie-turned-musical, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," amped up the outrageousness and colorfulness, but the new "Kinky Boots" (playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre), while occasionally reveling in its excess, offers a more intimate story about two fish out of water learning life lessons together. It emerges as a fun spectacle with some strongly defined characters and memorable tunes.

Pop-rock diva Cyndi Lauper, who this year marks the 30th anniversary of her debut as a solo recording artist, wrote the music and lyrics, while Broadway icon Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, adapted from the 2005 British film written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, itself based on a real shoe factory makeover in Northampton, England. The musical opened April 4, and we caught the performance on Saturday, April 6.

The setup is easy enough. Upon his father's death, 20-something Charlie Price (Stark Sands) discovers that the family shoe business is about to go belly-up. While he has just moved to London with his success-minded girlfriend, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), Charlie begins to feel a responsibility to the family friends in Northampton and seeks to salvage things. A chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola (Billy Porter), whom he saves from being attacked on the street, leads to an unlikely alliance. Charlie sees how thigh-high boots for drag queens (the kinky boots of the title) could be his company's new niche market, and he sees great potential in Lola as a designer. But to test her wings, Lola must temporarily move back to the prejudicial suburban environment she escaped from, and trying to win over some of the uptight male factory workers won't be easy. Meanwhile, Nicola schemes to turn the factory into condos.

More: Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein on 'Kinky Boots'

While the narrative approach is nothing new, there's certainly an infectious energy that emanates from the stage. Sands imbues the white-bread Charlie with personality (and he has his own repressed prejudices to deal with), and Porter steals the show as Lola, not only delivering coy one-liners with gusto but playing the sensitive emotional moments with sincerity and subtlety. Two supporting roles also stand out: Daniel Stewart Sherman as Don, the prejudiced factory worker who challenges Lola to a boxing match after they verbally spar over what it means to be a man; and Annaleigh Ashford as Lauren, Charlie's co-worker who giddily falls for him. Her laughter-inducing solo number "The History of Wrong Guys" is deliriously quirky and sounds like it could have come off of Ms. Lauper's first album. Lauren has a funny way of showing her love for Charlie; she's rather unusual.

The musical score, while working somewhat in a Broadway vein, pulls from Lauper's musical background as it seeks common ground between the two areas. A couple of numbers are synth-laced '80s pop, but there are also ballads, guitar-driven pop numbers and some disco-licious tunes for the drag queens to sashay to. Act 1's rousing closing number, "Everybody Say Yeah," is choreographed on conveyer belts, perhaps as a nod to the massively popular OK Go video "Here It Goes Again."

Overall, the familiar tolerance and empathy lessons of "Kinky Boots" -- you shouldn't judge a drag queen until you've walked a mile in her boots, and that looks pretty tricky -- are elevated by strong lead performances, clever set design by David Rockwell that allows an industrial factory to be transformed into other venues, and choreography from director Jerry Mitchell that maximizes the space.

A good Broadway debut for Lauper, "Kinky Boots" is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but more in the sense that many early attendees are cheerfully approving of its message, one that Lauper and Fierstein are passionate about in their longtime championing of LGBT rights and causes. By the way, the theatergoer who sat next to me lives 10 miles from Northampton. While he thought almost all of the cast's regional British accents were atrocious (Sands being the exception), that flaw still didn't stop him from enjoying the show. Those kinky boots are evidently mesmerizing indeed.

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