A mixed ‘Kinky Boots’ is big on sparkle, but sound and singing are a bit of a drag

National tour features an impressive Jos N. Banks as Lola, and Cyndi Lauper’s songs are first-rate, but Harvey Fierstein’s book has some problems

THEATER REVIEW

“Kinky Boots” strutted into Fresno’s Saroyan Theater on Wednesday night with a happy bounce to its step and enough patent leather to stock a Jimmy Choo outlet store. The audience ate up the show’s crowd-pleasing, feel-good, mildly subversive message of inclusion, which includes a rousing declaration of “Just be who you wanna be!”

Some in today’s contentious political climate would likely waggle their jowls at the thought of a Broadway musical celebrating men who wear glamorous gowns, but, frankly, “Kinky Boots” is pretty mild as far as kinky stuff goes. As Lola (aka Simon), the proud female impersonator driving the plot of the show, proclaims: “Drag queens are mainstream!”

Kinky-Boots-jos-banks
Jos N. Banks, center, is Lola in the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” Photo / Broadway in Fresno

I saw the show on Broadway, and this non-Equity national tour feels more scaled down and less representative of its original New York production than, say, the impressive national tour of “Beautiful,” which wowed the Saroyan last fall. At the same time, however, this “Kinky Boots” has a bright, cheery vibe and lots of dazzle, and Cyndi Lauper’s buoyant score and lyrics soar. Here are some thoughts from opening night:

A well-played Lola: Jos N. Banks imbued Lola with a scrappy vulnerability that was an especially effective counterpoint to her brassy bravado. The show only really begins to heat up midway through the first act with the song “The Sex is in the Heel,” sung by Lola, and Banks offered a rousing rendition. Of all the actors in this production, Banks was most successful at making his character feel multidimensional on stage.

A nice Charlie, but: As the new provincial shoe-factory owner trying to find a way to keep his business open, Lance Bordelon was pleasant enough, but he just seemed bland in the role. (Charlie eventually teams up with Lola to manufacture specialty thigh-high boots designed for the weight of a man — a truly niche market.) Bordelon put a lot of emotion into his vocals, but his voice often took on a shrill edge.

The costumes and scenic design: Very handsome, particularly for a touring production. I love one of the small details retained from the original Broadway production: the upright leg of a drag queen serving as the corner pole of a boxing ring. That’s inspired staging.

The sound: Alas. It wasn’t very good. The English-accented dialogue often slurred together like watery porridge. Worse still was the sound (and vocal style) of Sydney Patrick, who plays Lauren, the assembly-line factory worker who belts out the comical “The History of Wrong Guys.” In the song, the character is incredulous that she’s developing a crush on her boss. With a delivery that came across as tangy and metallic, Patrick butchered the amusing lyrics into mere mush, and the problematic sound design just made things worse.

The narrative: On a second viewing, the weaknesses of Harvey Fierstein’s book become more apparent. For all her rock-the-boat gender bluster, Lola is treated as a scrupulously non-sexual being; it’s left to the straight (and non-cross-dressing) male co-lead to check the obligatory love-interest storyline off the list. And speaking of Charlie’s character, the conflict between him and Lola in the second act — and Charlie’s subsequent breakdown — seems sudden and contrived.

The impact: Still, by the end, the positives of the show outweigh the negatives. That’s in large part due to Lauper’s music. Lauper penned two beautiful songs, “Soul of a Man” and “Hold Me in Your Heart,” along with a rousing anthem, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” and the cumulative effect of them sung one after another gets the audience on its feet. When it comes to drag queens and tolerance, perhaps mainstream is the biggest compliment of all.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

4 thoughts on “A mixed ‘Kinky Boots’ is big on sparkle, but sound and singing are a bit of a drag”

  1. But the sound ALWAYS sucks at the Saroyan. I often hesitate to see things there because of that, but we went tonight. More annoying than the sound: because of their newish policy of making like the TSA, it was slooow getting in. We sat just as the curtain went up; however, not everyone was likewise seated. Which meant for a good portion of the first scene ushers were flashing lights to find seats to match a line up of people with their seat assignment. Horribly distracting to the audience but also the actors. We missed the initial feather dusting scene where the plot was laid out. Too much audience/ usher yakking. And their new rule on purse size. I grabbed a fanny pack to be safe, yet saw women NOT sent back to their cars with bags that could double for a weekend getaway. Saroyan: you need to pull it together. Fresno can’t afford to be so unprofessional

  2. You would think after years of complaints the city/saroyan would fix their sound issues. One can only hope Fresno State builds their performing arts center and shows look to perform there. For a city with over half a million, we are stuck in the dark on so much, who thought audio would be one of them!

  3. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t stand Patrick’s voice. There’s a difference between the chatacter, and just not having great vocals

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