LondonMusicalReview

Kinky Boots The Musical in Concert – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music and Lyrics: Cyndi Lauper

Book: Harvey Fierstein

Director: Omar F Okai

Some musicals seem to work better in concert form. Chicago, for instance, gained its huge, record-breaking success only after the poorly-received musical had been restaged with an onstage orchestra as part of an Encores! concert series.

It feels as if Kinky Boots fits into the same category. True, the staged musical was a little more successful: written by Americans Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein but retaining the Northampton setting of Geoff Deane and Tim Firth’s 2005 film, the Broadway hit opened in the West End in 2015 and ran for four years. But there is something about a concert production which strips away the unnecessary, to reveal what lies beneath. 

The original production’s efforts to tell the story of a failing show factory that attempts to reverse its fortunes by making footwear for drag queens had a set that involved conveyor belts and catwalks. There is none of that in the concert – just an onstage orchestra (the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and chorus, conducted with customary jovial elan by Freddie Tapner) in front of which the cast, some with books in hand, deconstruct toxic masculinity as they assemble high-heeled boots for men.

Joel Harper-Jackson makes for an initially unassuming Charlie Price, reluctantly returning to the family business after the death of his father. Stooped and with hands firmly thrust into trouser pockets, Harper-Jackson uses his physicality to give the impression of a man uncomfortable in his own skin, in need of something – or someone – to help him emerge from his self-imposed chrysalis.

That someone turns out to be two people. The first is the flamboyant drag queen Lola, played here by Cedric Neal. Currently playing Goldie Wilson in Back to the Future, Neal has previously talked about his relationship with Kinky Boots; he narrowly missed out on being Billy Porter’s first cover in the original Broadway run, and again came close to getting the lead in the West End transfer. So this is a restitution of sorts, the reveal of what we could have had. If anything, those knock backs have fuelled Neal’s portrayal here, deepening the impression of Lola as a performer who’s had their own fair share of difficulties, but who finds a new chance to shine.

The second character crucial to Charlie’s transformation is factory worker Lauren (Courtney Bowman) who inspires her boss to find a new niche, and who then finds herself falling for him. Bowman – a delight in both Six and, recently, as Elle Woods in Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s Legally Blonde, is this concert version’s comedic heart, lifting the role from a lovely but bland romantic interest into a vibrant ball of energy.

Bowman’s rendition of The History of Wrong Guys brings the house down, further illustrating how thinly drawn is Charlie’s putative fiancée Nicola (Daisy Wood-Davis). Putatively there as an antagonist (she is both the person drawing Charlie way from his childhood home to London, and one of the realtors wanting to turn his father’s factory into flats) the real enemy is Charlie’s own self-doubt. As his attempts to turn the factory around and save the jobs of the people he’s grown up with take shape, so too does Harper-Jackson’s Charlie. The hands come out of those pockets, the back straightens, and the butterfly emerges.

But the real star, of course, is Lola. Backed by a fierce troupe of gender-defying queens, Neal cannot help but stand out, his flame-orange trouser suit defying some of the script’s references to dresses but giving us pure drag energy. Fierstein’s book demands of Lola that she be a combination of defiant ferocity and vulnerable insecurity, and Neal nails it. His friendship with Harper-Jackson’s Charlie, while platonic, is also the true romantic heart of the piece, and the way each character gains something from the other is one of the show’s many uplifting themes.

The main theme, though, is masculinity – or more precisely, how discarding traditional stereotypes of gender roles benefits everyone. The emphasis is on straight men, not because they themselves would be the biggest beneficiaries but because they are the ones who most need to hear it. The belief that to be a man you must be aggressive, you must belittle and bully those who are different, is a poison that infects Sean Needham’s Don, and like any infection it can spread.

An explosive argument between Harper-Jackson and Neal’s characters feels out of place, with nothing occurring before even suggesting that Charlie is capable of uttering the sort of homophobic, transphobic language that he does here. Of course we know the pair will make up for the finale, which makes the misplaced usage here even worse, in a way.

But the enforced separation of the two leads does lead us to the biggest, most important, moment of the piece. Neal delivers a huge, yet intensely intimate and personal, rendition of Hold Me In Your Heart that stops the show and gives Neal the standing ovation he deserved to get in a theatrical run of Kinky Boots. There is a sense, perhaps, of closure, but also that Neal is also ready to emerge into the next phase of his career.

“With all your faults, I love you,” Neal sings. “I need you to love me that way, too.” And as this fierce concert rendition exposes Kinky Boots’ flaws just as much as it showcases its stars, that message rings true.

Continues until 9 August 2022

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