There's no denying that "Kinky Boots" has all the elements for a smash hit show. This Broadway-bound world premiere musical, which officially opened Wednesday at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre, possesses flashy numbers, a handsome production design and a superskilled cast that can sing, dance and push all the necessary dramatic and comedic buttons upon command.
But "Kinky Boots" needs some improvement in its structure and writing. Veteran playwright Harvey Fierstein ("Torch Song Trilogy," "Newsies") and Grammy Award-winning pop star Cyndi Lauper (writing her first musical theater score) both offer up timely, touching and good material. But in its current state, "Kinky Boots" doesn't quite cross over into the category of great.
"Kinky Boots"★ ★ ½
Location: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago; (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sunday, Oct. 21); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; through Nov. 4
Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $33 to $100
Parking: Area pay garages
Rating: For teens and adults
"Kinky Boots" takes its inspiration from the real-life British shoe factory W.J. Brooks in Northampton, which for a time turned business around by manufacturing women's boots and shoes that could be worn by men. The factory was profiled in 1998 on the BBC documentary program "Trouble at the Top," which in turn inspired the fictionalized 2005 Miramax film "Kinky Boots" and now the new musical.
"Kinky Boots" focuses on Charlie Price (Stark Sands,) who reluctantly becomes the fifth generation owner of a failing Northampton shoe factory called Price and Son upon the untimely death of his father (Stephen Berger). A stern talking-to from factory worker Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford) and chance encounter with defiant drag queen Lola (Billy Porter) inspires Charlie to pursue the niche market of men's fetish shoes as a way to save the factory. Charlie's plan causes plenty of conflict with some his workers (particularly the macho Don of Daniel Stewart Sherman), and especially with his girlfriend, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), who wants to escape Northampton for a London real estate career.
But at the heart of Fierstein's script are the unresolved father-son conflicts faced by Charlie and Lola, which both motivate and inspire doubts as the unlikely creative collaborators race against a deadline to produce a line of "Kinky Boots" for an exclusive fashion show in Milan. The two find commonalities in Lauper's moving song "I'm Not My Father's Son," which especially provides Porter an introspective way to show another side of Lola, who is normally so ferociously fabulous. Fierstein and Lauper also strongly stress the timely issue of tolerance, pointing out how you can change the world by changing someone's mind.
Where Fierstein's work stumbles is in the second act. To create some dramatic tension, Charlie makes an abrupt and public outburst against Lola, which seemingly comes out of nowhere. (Charlie's initial awkwardness around Lola and inability to refer to her preferred cross-dressing moniker doesn't really foreshadow this jolting behavior.)
Plus the show's finale is far too rushed. We never satisfactorily get answers to the questions of whether Price and Son's line of "Kinky Boots" is a financial success, whether Lauren ends up with Charlie or just how all the factory workers (now fabulously attired) could afford the travel expenses to Milan.
Lauper's pop-influenced score is certainly toe-tapping and groove-worthy, especially numbers like "The Land of Lola" and "Sex is in the Heel" featuring the drag queen ensemble known as the "Angels." But Lauper's first few opening songs for Act I feel functional rather than essential, and some lyrics don't quite gel in other songs.
If the material isn't quite fully where it should be, at least "Kinky Boots" director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell offers up plenty of staging flash to emphasize the show's bountiful potential. Mitchell has loads of fun with his Act I finale "Everybody Say Yeah" involving conveyor belts in set designer David Rockwell's industrial factory set. Mitchell also neatly combines a swords-in-the-box magic trick in the drag number "Beware The Black Widow" to parallel Charlie's unenviable task of laying off his staff.
As the recipient of loads of flamboyant costumes by designer Gregg Barnes and many of the best lighting effects by designer Kenneth Posner, Porter's powerfully sung Lola understandably outshines Sands' turn as Charlie (though his mild-mannered character writing is also a factor).
Given how the film version of "Kinky Boots" utilized pre-existing pop hits for its soundtrack, lead "Kinky Boots" producers Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig are to be commended for commissioning a brand new score for their show rather than going the route of other stage jukebox musical musicals like "Rock of Ages" or "Priscilla Queen of the Desert." But as Charlie demands better workmanship from his factory, Roth and Luftig need their creative team to reexamine their show's material so the seams and detailing can be stylishly perfect, as "Kinky Boots" deserves.