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First Nighter: Kinky Boots the Musical Is Truly Kinky -- Despite the Kinks

04/04/2013 10:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

If Kinky Boots were judged solely on the merits of its several uproarious numbers and sunspot-bright performances, it would be accounted a runaway hit -- and many happy patrons will do just that. Show-biz truth is that any production boasting both a knock-out first-act and second-act finale can't go wrong, and the new tuner at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre can make that giddy claim, thanks to director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell's staging.

Indeed, when the cast members are singing composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper's show-closing "Raise You Up" (has there ever been a more blatant demand for a standing ovation?), they're also describing the effect they've been having on the audience for the length of the enterprise.

Foremost among the raiser-uppers is Billy Porter, playing drag performer Lola, born Simon, who comes to the aid of Charlie Price (Stark Sands), the reluctant heir to a failing Northampton, England shoe factory. In the long line of theater-annals black drag queens who've gotten down to the nitty-gritty of whatever the sticky situation is, Lola -- a shoe and boot lover since childhood (Marquise Neal) -- steps right to the front via Porter's finger-snapping authority.

Sands himself is no slouch either, playing the man who, when a lad (Sebastian Hedges Thomas), already had doubts about taking over the 1890-founded family business. He's thoroughly entertaining as a man who slowly comes to believe that radically changing the men's line to a new niche -- kinky boots for drag queens -- is the absolute smart thing to do. Who cares what unaccommodating fiancée Nicola (Celina Carvajal) thinks?

Dervishing around these two larger-print performers for additional show-energizing effect are, among high-(heel)-stepping others, Annaleigh Ashford as eyes-for-the-young-boss Lauren, Daniel Stewart Sherman as Lola-baiting factory worker Don and Lola's back-up show-girl squad, and The Angels (Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto) -- "lively" only begins to describe their contributions.

So all of the above are doing their level-best to make it seem as if Kinky Boots is the hottest, sexiest jack-in-the-box on Broadway -- and they're abetted by set designer David Rockwell (direct from this week's Lucky Guy), lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designer John Shivers, hair and wig designer Josh Marquette and not least, costume designer Gregg Barnes. Also give it up for shoe and boot suppliers LaDuca (that would be Phil LaDuca), T. O. Dey and Manolo Blahnik, who's anything but blah.

Which leads us to the brass tacks of any musical -- the score and the book. Another show-biz reality is that top-notch singers and crafty director-choreographers can often make songs sound a heap better than they actually are, and that, it has to be reported, is what's going on too much of the time with Lauper's derivative writing.

The only numbers that come across as vintage are "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" -- "Time After Time" and "True Colors." Lauper is "The History of Wrong Guys." Its opening line goes, "Women have been making bad choices since the beginning of time." That's a grand attention-getter and Ashford's delivery of the lead-in lyric and all that follows instantly positions her as a Tony candidate.

Other songs that run around the brain are "Sex Is in the Heel," "I'm Not My Father's Son" and "The Soul of a Man" -- but not because they have Lauper's individual stamp on them. With "The Soul of a Man," it's the complete conviction with which Sands instills that gets spectators punishing their palms.

What about "Hold Me in Your Heart," the 11 o'clock anthem Porter, in a fabulous gown and chic wig, belts as if his life and the life of the show depended on it? Yes, it's a show-stopper, and yes, it's a repeat of Jerry Herman's "I Am What I Am" from La Cage Aux Folles -- only not as good.

That it is embarrassingly reminiscent -- and every show-wise patron recognizes it as such -- isn't too surprising, since La Cage librettist Harvey Fierstein has filled the same role with Kinky Boots. No question he's the obvious go-to guy for musicals about take-charge drag artists and their cage full of males cavorting in women's clothes -- where at least one of them does a leaping-and-landing full split that make everyone watching think "Ouch!"

Adapting the 2005 Geoff Deane-Tim Firth movie of the same title, Fierstein brings the empathy he's exhibited for cross-dressing men since Torch Song Trilogy. But he gets into trouble with a plot line that by the intermission looks as if everything kinky-boots-wise is about to turn out fine.

So, confronted with a second act, he detours into complications for supporting characters. Then he hands Charlie Price an unlikely change of heart about new partner Lola over what is appropriate to wear when they reach Milan where the new line is to be introduced and whether the Angels should introduce them. Suddenly, Charlie's denying everything about Lola he previously encouraged. Huh?

There's one other aspect of Kinky Boots that calls for comment: It has to do with the basic notion that manufacturing boots strictly for men getting themselves up as women has the slimmest chance for commercial success.

Possibly it does -- if you're Le Dame Footwear in Verona, Wisconsin, which has been around for five years and is having a great first quarter of 2013. And that's if you take into account that the establishment doesn't limit its line strictly to boots and also relies on women with large feet for a percentage of the annual revenue.

So there you have it. Kinky Boots doesn't necessarily call for total suspension of disbelief. Only some -- and some agreeable suspension of critical standards. That's how the eager customers will get a boot out of it. Make that a kinky boot.