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Review: NYC Revival of Kinky Boots Is Off-Broadway's Best Night Out

Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's Tony-winning musical returns in a smaller version of the original production.

Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots off-Broadway
(© Matthew Murphy)

The world, it seems, is falling apart. Health, climate, and political crises plague just about every corner of our little planet; everyone hates each other just for existing. If there were ever a time for the unfailing optimism of Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's Tony-winning musical that preaches how "you change the world when you change your mind," it's now.

Fortunately for us, Lola has sashayed her way back to New York City in a downsized edition of Jerry Mitchell's original production at Stage 42 (formerly the Little Shubert). Kinky Boots, inspired by and now better-known than the 2005 film, hardly needs to prove its bona fides nine years after its debut, but the quality of this off-Broadway revival is no less high than what you would have seen at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on opening night. In fact, with an almost entirely new company, the show is currently in better shape than it was when it closed in 2019.

Heading up the charge is longtime leading man Callum Francis as Lola, the drag queen who inspires Charlie Price (Christian Douglas), the scion of a faltering Northampton shoemaking family, to save the factory by producing footwear catering to the transvestite market. And of course save it they do — this is a musical — but not without banishing some long-held, deeply ingrained prejudices along the way.

Francis is one of the production's very few cast holdovers, and it's easy to see why: His turn is electricity personified. Nicely balancing Lola's confidence and vulnerability, Francis commands the stage and has the audience in his hand from moment one. More importantly, this is not the self-indulgent performance that many of his predecessors delivered; it's one that knows exactly when to explode and when to rein it in, all in service of Lola's journey. You'd never know that he's played Lola across three continents and five different companies: It's like he's putting on the stilettos for the first time. Plus, it's awfully nice to hear power ballads like "Hold Me in Your Heart" sung in such a way that it doesn't feel like the performer's head is going to explode.

The cast of Kinky Boots at Stage 42
(© Matthew Murphy)

Douglas, a US Army vet making his off-Broadway debut after touring in the ensemble of Mitchell's Pretty Woman, is an awfully handsome Charlie, with a voice that blows the roof off the place during his two big numbers, "Step One" and "Soul of a Man." As Charlie's love interest Lauren, West End vet Danielle Hope is way more grounded than many of the others who have played the role, and her "History of Wrong Guys" steals the show as ever. It's hard not to have a soft spot for Sean Steele's Don, the burly factory worker who learns how to change his intolerant ways after learning what it really means to be a man from Lola. Marcus Neville, who played the warehouse foreman for pretty much the entire Broadway run, returns to his old role and once again provides the beating heart of the company.

Physically, Kinky Boots looks almost the same as it did on Broadway, down to the uncanny valley of ensemble members who bear startling resemblances to their original predecessors, albeit a little younger and slightly less gritty. Only the eagle-eyed would be able to spot the differences in David Rockwell's appropriately drab factory set, which is now depicted by painted drops instead of physical walls, or in the eye-popping costumes of Gregg Barnes, with the title boots by LaDuca, T.O. Dey, and Steppin' Out that still steal the show. The sound design by Gareth Owen is crisp and clear, giving Lauper's score the rock concert feel it requires from conductor Will Van Dyke and the six-member band.

The assorted problems I've had with Kinky Boots since I first saw it still stand. There's not a whole lot of conflict, and Fierstein's economical storytelling in the first act gives way to a flabby second. But I have a new appreciation for Mitchell's fleetfooted and generous direction, which keeps the show moving from the first moment. Ditto his miraculous choreography, especially the Act 1 finale on treadmills. In a more confined space like this one, where the audience is closer to the actors, the dancing just explodes off the stage in the most exciting ways.

I don't know if theater actually has the power to change the world, and I certainly doubt that all the GOP wags trying to banish the existence of drag queens, trans people, and the LGBT community at large will make their way to 42nd and Ninth. But if we're lucky, maybe a few audience members will take Lauper and Fierstein's dictum to heart and shift their way of thinking. In this miserably divisive world, that's all we can ask.

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