Kinky Boots is pop icon Cyndi Lauper's first foray into musical theatre and has been a phenomenal success. Based on the 2005 Brit flick starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, and before that a BBC documentary, it stormed Broadway two seasons ago and deprived Matilda of the Best Musical Tony, winning six in all.
It's a total crowd pleaser, delivering transgression-lite and less likely to shock your Aunt Agatha than a typical Rattigan. It tells the true story of an ailing Northampton shoe factory which was saved from bankruptcy by switching from sober hand-stitched brogues for men to lurid knee-high boots with gravity defying stiletto heels, targeted at the more niche market for 'erotic footwear'. The film invented the idea that it was a London drag queen, Lola, who inspires the young owner of the factory on this path after she rescued him from a mugging, soon after he'd inherited the failing factory from his late father. Indeed 'daddy issues' unite this pair and the emotional highlight of the piece is a well hewn power duet 'Not My Father's Son'.
Killian Donnelly, one of the West End's rising stars (late of Memphis), pulls off the difficult trick of making ordinariness interesting. His Charlie has more gumption than the one in the film but here we are in the realm of "feel-good" and everyone needs to be Extraordinary. Donnelly is and he possesses an astonishingly powerful soul voice, commanding the stage.
Likewise, the feisty Lola is also given more sass here than in the movie. The relentless self-confidence and the sage-like self-awareness though is all a bit much to expect from a troubled drag queen, but it all adds to the same "feel-good" vibe. Sometimes the sexual politics also tries too hard – does he really need to have been a boxer? The statuesque Matt Henry though is as good with a left hook as he is with a lipstick and he makes for a gloriously flamboyant Lola, blessed with another stunning voice. He lands killer one-liners with great finesse. "Tell me I haven't inspired something burgundy. Burgundy is the colour of hot water bottles" he exclaims when confronted with Charlie's first dreary boot sample.
Lauper's music is an engaging blend of hi-NRG party songs (one is staged on a conveyor belt) and 80's AOR but listening to folk in Northampton going "Everybody Say Yeah" does slightly jar. Like most pop/rock musicals it fares best when being anthemic, but Lauper can also nail the character song. "The History of Wrong Guys" is Lauren's tale of falling for her boss (Charlie) and the talented Amy Lennox brings the house down with it. She's one to watch. The athletic, gender bending, chorus too are another particular highlight. Their gymnastic gyrations and cartwheel turns, all in fearsome stilettos, are utterly astonishing.
All this in-your-face self-affirmation echoes both La Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy both of which of course made Harvey Fierstein's name. He has since forged a hugely successful career on Broadway and this show really benefits from that expertise. His book is an object lesson in how to fashion the perfect book for a musical: it keeps the action flowing and the audience gripped throughout. Likewise, Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography, David Rockwell's clever set (an eloquent recreation of the Victorian factory) and Gregg Barnes outrageous costumes cannot be faulted.
Sometimes though the sheer slickness of the whole enterprise gets too much and one leaves feeling slightly that it all doesn't add up to the sum of its perfectly polished parts.Tickets: www.kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk