KinkyBoots2

Price and Son is a venerable shoe manufacturing business in Northampton, England, founded in 1890. In the 21st century, however, it is struggling as the owner passes away and leaves it to his son, Charlie Price. Fresh out of college, Charlie is conflicted about what to do, as he never particularly wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. What is more, the business is flagging, as it has been producing shoes that no one wants to buy to avoid sacking loyal employees.

“When you are on the wrong road, turn around,” Charlie receives as sound business advice. In the true entrepreneurial spirit, he hits upon an idea to produce footwear for a community that is not served. Charlie thus fills a void for an unexplored niche market: drag queens and others who wish to wear feminine shoes, but who find most too fragile to support a man’s weight. Charlie discovers that he has the technical skill to produce the shoes, but his products lack style, leading him to hire drag queen (and trained boxer!) Lola (a.k.a. Simon) to produce flamboyant and appealing styles.

Such is the plot at Toby’s Dinner and Show’s “Kinky Boots” – sharp entrepreneurial lessons mix with ideas that challenge convention. At the same time, Charlie and Lola find that they have more in common than either initially thought; both revere their fathers, yet each finds himself struggling to live up to what he believes his parents wanted him to be. “Be yourself everyone else is taken,” a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, seems to be their answer at first. However, as the show goes on, the central characters come to realize that life is more than the simple rejection or mindless embrace of social customs and expectations. The show at Toby’s excels at showing the growth of their characters in ways that are both moving yet still laugh-out-loud funny!

The performances here are universally excellent. Lola is portrayed by DeCarlo Raspberry in a flamboyant performance which anchors the show, particularly in the song “Sex Is In the Heel.” Raspberry’s flamboyance and wonderful singing skills are matched by his poignant depiction of his character’s fractured relationship with a father who disowned him. Raspberry also works well with Matt Hirsch, who portrays Charlie. While the character of Charlie is much more conventional and buttoned-down than the effervescent Lola, Hirsch – through his acting, and especially singing – imbues Charlie with surprising strength.

The same can also be said of Russell Sunday’s Don. Don is a blue-collar factory foreman with fixed ideas about what makes a man a man and how authority operates. As the show progresses, however, the character exhibits a surprising potential for growth that did not seem possible at first. Don’s initial friction with Lola is predictable. Yet, it is resolved through a brilliantly-staged scene in a boxing match done in pantomime, with streamers suggesting a ring, reminding this reviewer of Brechtian techniques in the boxing match in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany.” More surprising is Don later finding himself resolving a conflict between the workers and a difficult-to-work-with Charlie, who becomes increasingly imperious as a key fashion show in Milan approaches. Sunday renders Don’s development utterly believable.

Another standout performer is Jana Bernard, who plays Lauren. Lauren begins as a worker on the shop floor but provides Charlie with such sound business and personal advice that he promotes her to management. Bernard plays the role with great wit and, when singing her primary number (“The History of Wrong Guys,” where she humorously recounts her prior misfortunes in love), seems to embody the musical styles and mannerisms which made Cyndi Lauper, the show’s composer, a household name during the 1980s.

In addition to a superb cast, director Mark Minnick, choreographers Minnick and David Singleton, artistic director Toby Orenstein, and musical director Ross Scott Rawlings must also come in for special praise. This collaboration is significantly aided by Toby’s theatre-in-the-round format, which provides an unexpected immediacy to this production. “It’s not that the fourth wall is broken,” Raspberry told us in an interview. “It’s that the fourth wall is not there!”

Toby’s “Kinky Boots,” which celebrates the unexpected community between a flamboyant drag queen and a conventional but wandering young businessman, has many memorable characters and moments, and a range of songs and performances which can only be called fabulous. However, what makes this musical most distinctive is its heart – the show is more than the story of an odd couple who somehow manage to become friends. Instead of a series of universal stories about young people coming to understand the views of their parents, and realizing, for better or for worse, how they are woven into their existence. It is also the story of groups of people separated by race, class and social boundaries coming to recognize their common humanity and common needs for respect, affection, and understanding.

“Kinky Boots” at Toby’s Dinner and Show runs through March 22 and is most definitely recommended. Parents should know, however, that the show features adult themes.

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