Stark Sands, Billy Porter, and the cast of <I>Kinky Boots</I>.
Stark Sands, Billy Porter, and the cast of Kinky Boots.
© Matthew Murphy

As I sat in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre waiting for Kinky Boots to start, I couldn't help but notice the throng of gay men and their best girlfriends surrounding me, clutching their sippy cups full of vodka cranberry. These people were clearly trying to fill an emotional void left by the departure of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. If your preferred Broadway experience is all about cocktails and drag queens, Kinky Boots will definitely fit the bill. But this show has a much wider appeal. Indeed, this high-energy spectacle with a heart is musical comedy at its finest.

Adapted from the eponymous 2005 British film, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie Price (Stark Sands), a young man desperately trying to save the Northampton shoe factory he inherited when his father died. Inspiration strikes, quite literally, when a London drag queen named Lola (Billy Porter) clocks him in the face with a boot while trying to ward off a gang of hooligans, breaking the heel in the process. Charlie soon realizes that he can save the factory by catering to a niche market: transvestites. He brings Lola on as a designer and they race against the clock to put together a line of durable ladies' footwear (for men) in time for a big fashion show in Milan.

Porter is electric as Lola. Every time he walks on stage the atmosphere becomes supercharged. He's put his personal stamp on the role, eschewing the world-weary Lola of the film in favor of a giddier, albeit more eccentric queen. Porter has taken a page from the Charles Busch lexicon of drag diction ("sexsh" instead of "sex") and he can elicit hoots and hollers with his deadly side-eye. His fierce musical performances (and lavish array of wigs) invoke Tina, Whitney, and Miss Jennifer Holliday. Girlfriend really works up a sweat letting us know, "The sexsh is in the heel."

Leading man Stark Sands also sheds his fair share of perspiration as he tears it up with the powerful anthem "The Soul of a Man." The real scene-stealing performance, however, comes from Annaleigh Ashford as Lauren, the quirky factory employee with a secret crush on the boss. Her hilarious rendition of "The History of Wrong Guys" is a cross between a therapy session and a DIY Cyndi Lauper concert.

As for the composer, Lauper has turned in a very strong Broadway debut: The score is chock-full of memorable dance hits and soulful ballads, each moving the plot forward and more richly developing the story. The same cannot be said of every pop-to-stage migrant composer, but Lauper gets it and the show benefits.

It also helps to have a smart director and Kinky Boots has one in Jerry Mitchell. Screen-to-stage transfers often try to directly mimic the film and fall disappointingly short due to the limitations of space and time. Mitchell and team have opted to lean into a challenge, however, staging a boxing match in lieu of what was merely an arm-wrestling match in the film. Arm wrestling would have been a lot easier to put on stage, but the boxing match is far more ambitious and it pays off, especially considering how Mitchell's inventive and economical staging allows the audience perspective to switch on a dime. Who needs a camera? Mitchell's choreography for the athletic showstopper "Everybody Say Yeah" is even more impressive. It features Porter, Sands, and the ensemble dancing on moving conveyor belts: It's Fuerza Bruta in stilettos.

David Rockwell's dynamic set constantly reminds us of the factory that is at stake, even as it transforms into multiple locations and creates new playing space out of the unlikeliest of places. Costume designer Gregg Barnes, with the help of T.O. Dey and Phil La Duca, has fashioned some fabulously whimsical kinky boots for the production and just like the Price & Son brand promises in the show, they can definitely support the weight of even the largest men as the high-heeled finale "Raise You Up/Just Be" demonstrates.

Harvey Fierstein's book is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay, but has given the story a brighter glow for the stage: The British often accuse Americans of being overly exuberant ("not bad" in British equals "amazing!" in American), but really, our attitude is just a lot more fun, especially in musical comedy. Underneath all the glitz and sequins, Fierstein has actually crafted a thoughtful story about the crushing tyranny of expectations that often spoils father-son relationships, and the ability of even the most stubborn of us to reconcile that disappointment with reality.

Luckily, you won't be disappointed with Kinky Boots. You're going to have a good time. The music is simply too good, the story too heartfelt, and the performers too sweaty. Resistance is futile in the wake of drag queens on a conveyor belt.