Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Kinky Boots. It was directed by Trent Stork, music directed by Kory Danielson, and choreographed by Isaiah Silvia-Chandley and Michael George. The book is by Harvey Fierstein based on the film written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. The music and lyrics are by Cyndi Lauper. Kinky Boots follows the intertwining stories of Charlie (Devin DeSantis), a man who has inherited a failing shoe business, and Lola (Michael Wordly) who is an awe-inspiring London drag performer with an infectious spirit (infectious in a good way). They end up starting a business together, as Charlie's last resort, making boots for drag queens, but they end up breaking free of the bonds societal norms put on them. It is about embracing femininity, finding your own path, and white men being let off the hook. I think this is a very well done and empowering show full of stunning queens and vocal acrobatics.
Every scene with Lola was completely breathtaking. Michael Wordly’s performance of this role gave just the right amount of sensitivity, sultriness, and swagger. When you go to see a production of Kinky Boots, of course you are going to look forward to seeing Lola and the performer’s take on the iconic role. What Wordly did very well that I haven’t seen before is that, during the first part of the show, even though Lola is the embodiment of confidence in her performances, there are glimpses of that uncertainty about herself that makes Lola such a complex and lovable character. In “Land of Lola,” the energy in the room was palpable. The audience was in awe of the performance. I also loved the individual presence and personality of each of the Angels (Terrell Armstrong, Anthony Avino, Matthew Bettencourt, Christopher John Kelley, Anthony Sullivan Jr., and J. Tyler Whitmer) Lola’s backup group. Each Angel had their own drag style, and I felt like I got to know each one, No one blended into the background. When she is away from her Angels, Lola’s vulnerability is clearer. It is most evident in “Not My Father’s Son,” which takes place when Lola has come to the factory for the first time out of drag. Even as Simon, Lola still wears her nail polish, but that is not enough of a barrier against the harsh words of some of the less open-minded workers, like Don (Mark Lancaster). This song reached into my heart and pulled it out. Every word that Simon uttered was genuine and emotional. When is in drag as Lola, Wordly likes to punctuate his points with high notes, but in this song everything is more soft and gradual. Almost every note drew out and showed a journey from fear to resentment to resolution.
I love many of the messages in this show, like being true to who you are and opening your mind to others. However, I feel like the level of forgiveness that Lola shows Charlie is slightly concerning due to the hail of offensive insults that Charlie throws upon her just days before the fashion show they have been planning. If Charlie hadn’t gone on for so long pelting Lola with abusive language, I would understand a bit more why Lola chose to forgive him. Because Lola does eventually help Charlie out and forgive him, Kinky Boots is added to the already lengthy list of shows that promote the narrative of white men being forgiven by underrepresented groups. Charlie joins a long line of white male characters who are invincible to taking responsibility for their actions and who avoid consequences they deserve. If Charlie had done any grand gesture, like the more straightforwardly prejudiced Don did, to show that he had changed as a person and was trying to improve, the narrative would have provided a better example of how to change and make amends for your ingrained biases. But, because Charlie is the main character, all he seems to need to do is apologize when really that isn’t enough. Don helps put together a group of people to stay overtime and help make Lola’s vision a reality. Don did something to show that he was changing, which at least shows the path to change instead of the path to immediate forgiveness and gratification. I in no way want to say I didn’t enjoy Devin DeSantis’ performance as Charlie. The flaw is in the script. Charlie has a song called “Soul of a Man” that DeSantis absolutely crushed. His vocal performance paired with his raw emotion made for the perfect power ballad. Lauren (Sarah Reinecke), like Lola, seems perhaps too quick to forgive Charlie so the play can wrap itself up and get to a happy ending. It’s not that I don’t want a happy ending, but I would like it to come as a result of a real, trackable change in Charlie. Reinecke did an absolutely masterful job with this role. She found the perfect balance between the comedy that her character’s song, “The History of Wrong Guys,” contains and relatable and believable moments of self-realization. I think the performers seemed like they would have been able to do even more nuanced work around the issue of transformation and forgiveness if the script had given them space for that.
People who would like this show are people who like stellar ensembles, complex drag queens, and shoe-motivated changes in perspective. This is an amazing production to see as your welcome back to in-person theater. I missed the community of theatermakers and theater lovers and the joy that fills the room when they get together. I’m so glad to be back.
Kinky Boots runs through October 17, 2021 at Paramount Theatre
Photos: Liz Lauren