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Review: Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel)

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Review: Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel)

by Jo Litson on October 23, 2016 (October 23, 2016) filed under Musical Theatre & Cabaret | Comment Now
★★★★☆ A brilliantly performed, life-affirming musical that high-kicks you out of the theatre walking on air.

Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne
October 22, 2016

Kinky Boots is the show that pipped Matilda to the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical – a decision that raised a fair few eyebrows. It certainly sits in a more traditional Broadway mould than the thrillingly original, super-smart Matilda, but you can see why it has proved so popular. It is a joyous, life-affirming show with a huge heart and a well-worn but (sadly) still necessary message about being true to yourself and accepting others for who they are.

Kinky Boots Review AustraliaThe cast of Kinky Boots with Callum Francis and Toby Francis centre. Photo by Matthew Murphy

With touchingly truthful performances from its two stars, Callum Francis and Toby Francis, the opening night audience gave the Australian premiere a rapturous standing ovation that felt genuine and thoroughly well-earned.

Written by pop star Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) and Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein (book), Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 British film starring Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, which was itself inspired by a true story.

Set in Northampton, Charlie Price (Toby Francis) reluctantly inherits his father’s shoe factory, only to discover it is floundering financially. Though he’d love to run for the exit, he decides to stay in order to keep the workers in a job. After a chance meeting with a black drag queen called Lola (Callum Francis) in London, who says she’d give her “left tit for a shoe that could stand up to me”, Charlie tries to reboot the factory’s fortunes with a “kinky revolution” – making sturdy yet sexy stiletto-heeled boots for men who dress as women, enlisting Lola as designer.

Arriving with the Angels, an entourage of six high-kicking drag queens, Kinky Boots brings together people from two wildly different worlds, who learn to work together and discover plenty about themselves in the process.

The show isn’t without its flaws. A few of Lauper’s songs aren’t particularly memorable and don’t really fly, though most do, combining pop and musical theatre influences. The upbeat Everybody Say Yeah closes Act I on a high, while the show’s uplifting finale Raise You Up/Just Be has an elated audience bopping and clapping along. Then there’s the beautiful, wistful ballad Not My Father’s Son – arguably the musical highlight – in which Lola and Charlie, realise they have more in common than they thought, having both failed to live up to paternal expectations.

Kinky Boots Review AustraliaToby Francis and Callum Francis sing Not My Father's Son. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The show shamelessly pushes emotional buttons, particularly in the second act, but sentimentality is largely kept at bay by humour (Fierstein has penned plenty of zingy one-liners) and the grounded performances of a uniformly fine cast.

The scene where Charlie turns on Lola, sending her storming off just before they are due to unveil their new collection at a fashion show in Milan, is the hardest to swallow. It’s difficult to believe that the Charlie we have got to know, albeit frustrated and anxious, would say such awful things. The way the fallout is then resolved so quickly, making way for a triumphant finale, also feels a bit pat.

The torch song Lola sings at a nursing home, Hold Me in Your Heart, just after the row, has no real place in the narrative – though lordy, lordy does Callum Francis tear up the stage with it – and the relationship between Charlie and his aspirational girlfriend Nicola isn’t terribly well developed. But for all that, the joyousness and heartfelt drama of the piece wins the day, sweeping you up in its infectious warmth.

Jerry Mitchell’s assured direction and fun-filled, flashy choreography – which at one point has the drag queens and workers celebrating together in a routine on the factory conveyor belt – keeps things moving seamlessly. David Rockwell’s set design combines the brickwork and faded charm of the factory with the cheap glitz of Lola’s cabaret venue and the glamour of the Milan catwalk, using large windows, colourful lighting (designed by Kenneth Posner) and flexible set-pieces to make the quicksilver scene changes, while Gregg Barnes’ costumes make the most of the difference between the fab and drab worlds.

Kinky Boots Review AustraliaCallum Francis as Lola, Toby Francis as Charlie and the cast of Kinky Boots. Photo by Michael Murphy

The show is anchored by the performances of Callum Francis and Toby Francis (no relation), both of whom are strong actors as well as singers, and create characters that feel very real. Callum is a British actor who has done heaps of understudying in the West End. In fact, his bio has a list of roles that he has covered including Lola in Kinky Boots, John in Miss Saigon, Simba in The Lion King, Subway Ghost in Ghost the Musical, and Hud in Hair. Here, he steps into the spotlight in his own right for the first time and shows what a star he is. His performance is drop dead sensational, combining the fabulousness and ready wit of the drag queen with the awkwardness, vulnerability and insecurity of the man beneath (“Simon, from Clacton”). What’s more, he has a gorgeous voice and knows instinctively how to deliver a number, building it effortlessly without over-singing.

It’s also fantastic to see Toby Francis, who has made his mark in cabaret and indie musicals, really owning it in his breakout leading role on the commercial stage. His Charlie is likeable and completely believable, as he gradually discovers who he really is, becoming a less nerdy, more confident and better man through his relationship with Lola. With a rock tenor well suited to the role, he nails it.

Sophie Wright is a knockout as Lauren, who works at the factory and falls for Charlie, finding all the comedy in her song The History of Wrong Guys. Teagan Wouters does a good job in the rather thankless role of Nicola, Charlie’s unsympathetic girlfriend. Canadian actor Daniel Williston is also a standout as Don, a meathead who is the most determinedly unaccepting of Lola, but everyone is terrific, with each of the ensemble creating a distinctly defined character.

While the show itself isn’t perfect, it’s hard to fault the stylish, well-cast production, which sends you home with a big smile on your face, feeling as if you are walking six inches off the ground – which is where Lola, in her stiletto boots (“two and a half feet of irresistible sex”), has always felt happiest.


Kinky Boots is at Capitol Theatre Sydney until July 23 and QPAC Brisbane from August 22

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