Last evening, Nancy and I went out to see a musical, Kinky Boots. I had not seen a musical in years and always moaned and groaned about how large scale musical shows had displaced real drama as the main entertainment on Broadway, the West End and on King Street. I knew virtually nothing about what we were going to see, I had read a snippet that was an excuse for a review that indicated the show was a terrific blast of music and foot stomping choreography. I expected to have a night of sheer entertainment dealing with exuberance and pure physicality in a paean to what I thought would be a dramatized version of an Irish River Dance. I needed an escape, a relief from writing about shame and humiliation.
Guess what? I thought from the little review of the show I read that the story was one about sons and fathers, about sons stepping into their father’s boots, kinky boots at that. So I thought the story would be about a young man coming out to his father and revealing he was a transvestite. The musical was about sons stepping into their father’s boots, but only in a very minor key. It was about men who stepped out in the flood lights, but not to reveal they were transvestites, but that they were drag queens. It was, after all, as Lola ,performed by an absolutely amazing Alan Mingo Jr., says at one point in the evening, draq queens are royalty and flash and dazzle. Transvestites simply like to dress like women, but do not know how to show off who they really are.
The major theme, as it turned out, was not about the politics of the family and how one overcomes the repression imposed by fathers who will not recognize the true worth of their sons, though the musical is about that. The major theme, however, is about what it means to be a man, a true man, not a macho man, but a man who respects who he is and what he is. And it does not matter whether the man is a transvestite, a drag queen, a stocky tough and rough leather worker or a would-be entrepreneur interested in marketing. Its all pizzazz. Just different expressions. What counts is what is underneath and we cannot be ashamed of what we find there. Stand tall and proud about who you are, who you really are and not who you want to appear to be to please and cater to others. For whatever the different forms of expression that takes, we are all the same. We need to love and be loved. Most of all, we need to love ourselves. And it takes a drag queen, one seemingly on the surface dedicated only to dressing up and creating a mask as she/he entertains others, to tell us who we really are and who we can really be.
So the show turns out to about shame and humiliation, about men who are ashamed of their feminine side and drag queens who are not. The show is about the lessons drag queens can teach straight men about love. I should have known what the show was about, or at least had a clue. After all, I did know Harvey Fierstein had written the book. But I had not realized that 2 + 2 = 4. I had not connected the dots. After all, was he not the author of one of the best comedies ever written, La Cage aux Folles, both as a brilliant play as well as a musical? But, in some sense, it was better I did not know. In another sense, it would have helped because, though the production last night was thoroughly enjoyable and a terrific evening of entertainment, I might have had an easier time figuring out what was wrong.
I knew that something was awry by the second musical number. But I thought it was because I had simply made a mistake and was attending something very pedestrian. But as soon as Lola and her angels, her fellow chorus of drag queens, hit the stage, the show is transformed. In part, that is the intention. In part it is not. For in replaying the first two numbers in my mind, it was very easy to imagine them performed in a very different way so that one is clued into where the show is going and so we can become emotionally involved, even if not clear about the message, as soon as the musical starts. Certainly, Kinky Boots is and was both one terrific evening of entertainment and dead on in its understanding of what it means to respect oneself and respect another. But it could have been even more powerful. Perhaps it was in the Broadway production that swept up so many Tony awards.
Many who read my blog comment and ask how I know so much, and about so many different things. I do not. I do know a lot, but only about a very few slices of life. I know nothing of cars. I know virtually nothing about music. I know nothing about popular entertainment. I know nothing about technology. I know nothing about horror and zombie movies. I know nothing about virtually any sport you might name. I teem with ignorance. When my wife first met me she thought I was Mork from Ork, only I had no idea what she was talking about. But I do know drama and I was a regular at the Royal Alexander Theatre. For a while I had been a drama critic first for The Varsity and then for The Toronto Daily Star. It was, after all, the only way I had to avoid suffering from trying to stuff my 6’ 3” frame into the cramped seats in the first balcony, for critics gat aisle seats in the orchestra.
But I had forgotten how uncomfortable those seats are. And even though my frame has shrunk by 2”, my girth has more than compensated for that and I had to ask to move seats to a much poorer one in the upper row at the very end, but at least one where my knees were not up in my chin. Faced with a full house, the usher and the management were, however, very accommodating and did their best to see that I had at least a seat where I would not end up a cripple. As it turns out, I could see and hear very well, though clearly not nearly as well as if I was back in the orchestra in row G on the aisle when I was a much younger man. But such are the losses with age and irrelevance.
First, before I get to the serious flaw, why was the show so amazing? I believe it starts with both the theme and the book for which Harvey Fierstein was responsible based on a movie, Kinky Boots which I have never seen or, frankly, even heard about. It was a 2005 British or British-American flick, a musical adaptation of a true story taken from a 1999 BBC documentary about Steve Patemen who was struggling for his family shoe company’s survival in a factory in Northhamptonshire in the East Midlands. The company was renowned for the quality of its brogues and other men’s quality footwear. But the factory could no longer compete with cheap imports. The W.J. Brooks Ltd. Factory, Price and Sons in the musical, is saved when, through a chance encounter, the owner who had inherited his father’s business turns to making shoes for the niche market of transvestites and drag queens, and then the women’s market, by making a brassy boot, but one sturdy enough to support the much heavier weight of a male with a different centre of gravity. In real life, the new line was marketed under the “Divine” brand rather than as Lola’s kinky boots. And my sense is that the movie also tried to be divine instead of taking up the superb scorched earth path of Harvey Fierstein’s musical that ended up winning six Tony awards.
The basic plot is retained with only a few minor variations. The musical provides ample evidence that a story is not made by its plot, but by a combination of how it reveals itself and what is revealed beneath all the appearances, especially in a show that is about the relationship between appearances and the spirit of what it is to be human beneath all our masks. In the musical, Charlie, played by Graham Scott Fleming, is the young heir to the shoe factory who very reluctantly inherits the business when his father dies. And that is the major problem with the show.
The dramatic tension should be between a macho male who is also under both his father’s and his girlfriend’s thumbs with really no deep sense of who he is or who he wants to be, and Lola. So Charlie is the centre of the dramatic struggle, torn apart inside, torn apart by family politics and torn with his attraction to the flamboyant lifestyle of Lola who he meets in a chance encounter. He is the tough guy. He is the one who would stand up and protect “her” when “she” is being harassed by two boors after finishing her performance at a cabaret. But it is he who is knocked flat on his back.
But that was not a surprise. What was a surprise is that he would intervene in a fight in the first place. Because who would know from watching the performance thus far that this guy had been a high school football star, that his girlfriend, Nicola, played by Vanessa Sears, was the usual beautiful queen of the ball. Charlie he wanted to become a marketer because he had his own route to displaying himself, but one where he had the hard lesson to learn about what was worth expressing. It does not help when Charlie’s girlfriend/fiancé is played simply as a lower class but very ambitious tart instead of as an entrancing rival compared to Lauren.
Well its all there on the stage. Its all there in the plot. But it is not all there in the casting and, or, directing, especially of Charlie. Instead of a macho man in love with sports and proud of his physique and confident and determined to make it in the big city, Charlie starts out and remains a wimp through the whole performance until the very end. The struggle he is going through is referred to but not performed. It is in the book, but not in the production. And it creates a big hole in the evening’s entertainment.
At one point in the musical, Charlie notes that when Lola appears, life, and the stage, light up. When Lola is not there, there is a big vacuum left. What we do not get is Charlie’s efforts to fill that vacuum, and the underlying tense rivalry with Lola whose real name is Simon. Thus, when Simon turns against Lola, turns against his workers demanding perfection from them, reveals his insecurities and his own shame about his superficiality, his pretence, as distinct from Lola’s, is clearly on display. The revelation comes from left field instead of emerging clearly from the dramatic struggle that preceded it. The power of the musical depends upon Charlie being front and centre and competing to be front and centre with Lola and not simply in using Lola as a means and a means only. When his disrespect for her breaks out, one sits in the theatre and asks, “Where did that come from?” You then are confirmed that there is something wrong with the production, that there is a serious flaw.
In this case, it was easy to diagnose what was wrong. Bad casting. A misunderstanding of the character and an incapacity to pull it off. A terrific show. An amazing evening. But it could have been so much better. And the fault is not in the book or in Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics. Nor is the fault in the vast majority of the cast who are stars in their own right. And it is certainly not in the staging or the costumes which are fantastic. It is the absence of one star who should have been a truly central part of the show and honestly and powerfully vied with Lola for stage front.
Instead, Lauren, performed brilliantly by Aj Bridel as a factory worker smitten by Charlie – though you can never tell why such a wimp could be possibly attractive to any woman. – totally upstage Charlie when she is on. Various other members of the cast, from the tough as nails shoemaker (Daniel Willisten as Don) to the floor manager, are terrific. Most certainly, Lola’s team of a half dozen angels all brilliantly exemplify a different aspect of Lola’s six point rather than twelve point program for salvation. The brilliant cast certainly helps to cover-up and disguise the flaw at the centre of the production and prevent it from becoming a fatal one.
It’s a lost opportunity. The show could have been more than an evening of terrific fireworks, though simply watching Alan Mingo Jr. perform was worth the price of admission.