BREVIEW: Kinky Boots the Musical @ Hippodrome 14-23.03.18

Words by Charlotte Heap / Production shots courtesy of the Hippodrome

Before I begin my review of Kinky Boots the Musical, I need to confess: I love shoes and I love drag culture. And so this young musical, written by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper – launched in 2012, is (on paper) the perfect production for this reviewer who has had, shall we say, mixed experiences with musicals in the past.

Based on the 2005 film featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Joel Edgerton, this musical production is still a tale of British industrial decline and intolerance. Shoe manufacturing heir, Charlie Price, is thrust into a failing factory following the death of his father – but how can a chance encounter with a mysterious drag queen help to save the day? The clue is in the title.

Kinky Boots the Musical has been hugely successful – winning six Tony’s and three Laurence Olivier awards including ‘Best Musical’, despite a slow start in its first season on Broadway (where it was competing with Matilda the Musical, also in debut). I was curious to see how this Broadway magic would translate at Birmingham’s Hippodrome.

Initially, I was sceptical. The staging was as slick as you would expect from a production of this calibre, but I’d not seen a British-based musical before and the contrast between the Northampton setting and the transatlantic vocals in the (so far, fairly forgettable) musical numbers was distracting. Charlie (played by Joel Harper- Jackson) seemed insipid, and his fiancée (played by Helen Ternent) spoilt. Some of the accents were more than suspect too, from Cockney to Black Country and back. And then came Lola.

Kayi Ushe, a graduate of Brunel University Arts Centre, played Lola – a boxer turned drag queen from Clacton and eventual creator of the eponymous Kinky Boots – with aplomb. His vocals and vivacity were stunning and, as Lola’s arrival injected pizzazz into the story, so the stage came alive.

Kinky Boots‘ score is Lauper’s first attempt at a musical, and it is masterful. Reflecting her range, there’s beautiful ballads and fabulous funk that seem to get better as the show progresses. The chorus wasn’t always pitch perfect but the clever choreography, witty writing, and comic timing of standout characters like factory workers Don and Lauren (Demitri Lampra and Paula Lane) had the audience roaring. Lola’s Angels, her drag queen chorus, helped her steal the show with their charm and athleticism.

The cast romped through the tale of industrial revolution and individual redemption to the delight of a full house: the most diverse adult audience I can remember being part of. By the end, the entire auditorium (with the exception of the most elderly) were on their feet. The storyline itself is predictable, and packed with minor plotlines – some of which added to the musical’s message (in particular, the boxing match where secret boxer Lola fights bigoted Don, and challenges him to accept people as they are) and some felt forced (such as Charlie’s cutting cruelty to Lola for a peril-filled finale) and, for a new musical, almost dated.

I’m a fan of the art of drag, having first discovered Ru Paul’s Drag Race nearly a decade ago; since Kinky Boots the Musical launched, Drag Race has become something of a cultural phenomenon. But some of Birmingham’s drag queens were in the audience at the Hippodrome and one of the biggest cheers of the evening came when Lola defiantly states, “Drag is mainstream”. Certainly, with mainstream media co-opting drag culture (Lip Sync Battle, anyone?), Kinky Boots the Musical seemed to be preaching acceptance to the converted. A clever twist emphasises that acceptance should be extended to everyone, not just drag queens.

Kinky Boots the Musical is a campy, clever and funny few hours that I would recommend to anyone. While Lola and her angels thrilled us, British parliament voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal – a stark reminder, as we left the auditorium, that despite the bubble of love generated by the production’s talented cast our society is still in turmoil. It may be a while still before Kinky Boots depiction of a battle against bigotry and industrial decline can be viewed as a bygone snapshot of British society.  

Kinky Boots the Musical – official trailer

Kinky Boots the Musical runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Thursday 14th to Saturday 23rd March 2019. Tickets are priced from £26, depending on the day/time of performance and your seating position in the theatre.

For full show details direct from the Hippodrome, including links to online ticket sales with an available seating plan, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/kinky-boots

For more on Kinky Boots the Musical, visit http://www.kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk/

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