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Does Kinky Boots on BroadwayHD Raise Up the Stage Show?

The London cast appears in a filmed version of the Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein musical, available to subscribers of the theatrical streaming service.

This is the first in a series of reviews of streaming theatrical events accessible to theatergoers as they wait out this period of social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matt Henry (center) stars in the West End production of Kinky Boots, available for streaming on BroadwayHD.
(© Matt Crockett / BroadwayHD)

When people ask me if I've ever given a rave review that I've come to regret, I usually respond with Kinky Boots. Reading my review of the 2013 Broadway production (starring Billy Porter, Stark Sands, and Annaleigh Ashford), you can tell that I was swept up in the fun and fabulousness of the show. But on reflection, its story and themes leave me with a slight cringe.

To understand why, read a few (Tony Award-winning) lyrics by Cyndi Lauper: "Just be who you wanna be"; "Let pride be your guide"; "When your bubble busts, let me raise you up." These are trite sentiments best left to cheery posters in a high school guidance counselor's office. Consider also that this musical about a factory owner who teams up with a drag queen shamelessly appropriates queer culture to tell a feel-good story about industry — it's essentially a fairytale of capitalism. And between RuPaul, La Cage aux Folles, and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, hasn't our culture had enough of inspirational drag queens propping up the status quo, as if it were a drunk bachelorette on the third hour of a Hell's Kitchen pub crawl?

Natalie McQueen plays Lauren, and Killian Donnelly plays Charlie in Kinky Boots on BroadwayHD.
(© BroadwayHD)

This coronavirus lock-in gives me the opportunity to revise my position on Kinky Boots by reviewing the streaming version on BroadwayHD (the theater's answer to Netflix). While not the actual Broadway production, Kinky Boots was recorded in November 2018 at London's Adelphi Theatre with Matt Henry and Killian Donnelly, the two stars of the original London cast. The idiosyncrasy of performance aside, the production is exactly the one director Jerry Mitchell staged on Broadway in 2013, down to each glittering sequin. Watching Kinky Boots on BroadwayHD gets you as close to the live show as you can possibly hope to get without actually stepping into a theater. The problem is, I still had a great time; and days later, I'm still singing Lauper's catchy pop anthems and voguing around my apartment like a crazy person.

The story is based on the 2005 British film. It's about Charlie Price (Donnelly), the scion of a family of Northampton shoe manufacturers. Charlie's dad (Graham Kent) sells fuddy-duddy men's oxfords to a dwindling clientele. Charlie wants off this sinking ship, so he moves to London with his snooty fiancée, Nicola (Cordelia Farnworth). But family businesses are like the mob, and Charlie inevitably gets sucked back in. A chance encounter with London drag performer Lola (Matt Henry) gives Charlie a smack of inspiration: Price & Sons can come roaring back by producing durable footwear for cross-dressers, and Lola can help by coming on as lead designer.

Director Brett Sullivan (who oversaw the filming) does an excellent job capturing Mitchell's work as both a director and choreographer of the stage show. Mitchell's choreography is particularly well-featured: "Everybody Say Yeah," the first act closer that features drag queens on treadmills, is easily one of the best production numbers of the 21st century. And as strategically wielded by Sullivan, the frame of the camera makes the stage violence seem almost plausible in ways it rarely is in live theater.

The performers have the unenviable task of acting for both a 1,500-seat house and the camera, and they mostly succeed. Henry is over-the-top camp, but one gets a sense that Lola would appear this way in any medium (original Lola Billy Porter certainly does). Book writer Harvey Fierstein once passionately argued to me that Lola is not actually gay, which isn't something that comes through in Henry's interpretation — but the memory of the conversation did make me reconsider the song "What a Woman Wants," about how all of the women in the factory have fallen in love with Lola's sensitivity and style.

Donnelly, who makes an adorably scruffy Charlie, has the kind of voice that makes you want to pull out your lighter and wave it around — which you can do in your own house, perhaps while firing up a scented candle. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of "The Soul of a Man," which sounds like vintage Queen in this recording.

There are other standout performances: Natalie McQueen is delightfully quirky as Lauren, the warmhearted working-class foil to Nicola's bourgeois ice queen. Sean Needham delivers a memorable performance as Don, the factory tough-guy whose initial hostility to Lola transitions into real respect. Needham brings outsize masculinity to the role — and really, that's a kind of drag, too.

Camera close-ups helped me appreciate design details I hadn't noticed before, like the authentic beer taps on David Rockwell's set during the pub scene, or the intricate cuts of costume designer Gregg Barnes's British fantasia couture during the runway finale. Kenneth Posner's lighting works particularly well with the multicolored window panes on Rockwell's set, creating a kind of industrial rainbow — an apt metaphor for this show.

I gasped during a second-act scene I had forgotten: In a bid to help save the faltering business, Don rips up his weekly paycheck (and convinces the other workers to do the same). The moment feels uncomfortably timely as workers around the world will soon face a similar dilemma, and the schmaltzy way it is played here is enough to get Bernie Sanders's finger a-wagging (something that frankly makes me like Kinky Boots more). This viewing also made me reconsider Lola as an individual who is neither straight nor gay, but who does not fit neatly within our dull alphabetized sexual taxonomy. All of that makes Kinky Boots feel transgressive in a way that it did not during the late Obama era.

Most importantly, this recorded version of Kinky Boots captures the excitement of a live musical. Seeing the audience dancing and clapping in a shower of red confetti makes Kinky Boots look like a party, the kind you definitely want to attend live once the theaters open again.

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