Niceness is a relative term in “Kinky Boots”: people of means with unfocused drive can be good and working-class stiffs better. But drag queens are the best folks of all. And the tippy-top best is Billy Porter’s Lola, the showiest queen in London Town. The memory of his father’s rejection seared into his brain, Lola carves out a life of 24/7 fabulousness tempered by round-the-clock insecurity, rage and self-pity.
The ultra-dynamic Porter harvests ample waves of applause for a character that, courtesy of precursors in “La Cage aux Folles” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” has become a stock character on Broadway. (Is a wicked drag queen of vile intentions nowhere to be found?) It is on this plane that “Kinky Boots” falls short of bona fide musical-theater distinction: Harvey Fierstein’s saccharine book recycles so many platitudes about nobility in the wake of cruelty and intolerance that the sentimentality-soaked second act nearly smothers the show’s gleeful fire.
Despite the weaknesses of Act 2, so much good will has been banked before intermission by director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and crew that audience forgiveness remains the evening’s most accessible virtue. The show, set in the north of England — the economically hard-pressed heartland that was also home turf to the denizens of “Billy Elliot” and “The Full Monty” — tells of the heir to a dying shoe factory (Sands’s Charlie) who after helping Lola fend off a mugger hatches a plan to restart the business as a manufacturer of leather boots for the drag industry.
It’s intended of course as pure fantasy: Oz in this instance is the shoe-fashion shows of Milan, where everyone is dying to see the latest in women’s boots for men. What keeps rolling of the eyes at bay is the earthy authenticity of the cast, particularly the assorted factory workers and especially Ashford’s crackerjack Lauren. Her Lauper-manque rendition of “The History of Wrong Guys” follows immediately on the show’s most exhilaratingly danced song, “Sex is in the Heel”; by God if Ashford doesn’t sustain the electricity with which Mitchell and Porter charge the prior production number.
Sands is magnetically right in a role that otherwise could have fizzled in Lola’s 10-story-high shadow. Design experts such as David Rockwell (sets) and Gregg Barnes (costumes) give eye appeal, too, to a show susceptible to visual tackiness. And boots off to Mitchell, who finds inspiration on a factory floor, turning an assembly line into a conveyance of joy.
“Kinky Boots” arrives on the heels of another musical with a bit of a shoe fetish: a Broadway adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of “Cinderella,” originally produced for television in the late 1950s. If “Kinky Boots” is brought down a peg by book problems, “Cinderella” suffers from new-book problems. Douglas Carter Beane (of “The Little Dog Laughed” fame was recruited to vacuum some of the dust out of Oscar Hammerstein II’s libretto. The result is tonally at odds with the R&H score —a book, in fact, that compels you to the thought that Beane would have been better off writing the dialogue for Stephen Sondheim’s tall-tale musical, “Into the Woods.”
William Ivey Long’s luxuriously witty costumes — which encompass a magical transformation or two for Laura Osnes’s prettily sung title character — elevate the happenings on the stage of the Broadway Theatre. Santino Fontana’s altruistic Prince, and Ann Harada and Marla Mindelle as Cinderella’s stepsisters, offer freshly farcical perspectives on fairy-tale staples. But as an accessory for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1950s songs, Beane’s sarcastic latter-day script is a slipper that just doesn’t fit.
Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper; book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music supervision and orchestrations, Stephen Oremus; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, John Shivers; hair design, Josh Marquette. With Marcus Neville, Daniel Stewart Sherman. About 2½ hours. At Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., New York.
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics and original book by Oscar Hammerstein II; new book by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Choreography, Josh Rhodes; music supervision, David Chase; sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Nevin Steinberg; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley. With Ann Harada, Peter Bartlett, Harriet Harris, Victoria Clark, Cody Williams. About 2½ hours. At Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York.
For both shows, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.