Sometimes the best part of a musical is seeing a familiar or unremarkable setting created on stage and filled with singing and dancing, making life seem that little bit more lively. In the much adored “Kinky Boots” that setting is a shoe factory on the brink of closing down when owner Charlie (Joel Harper-Jackson) meets larger-than-life drag queen Lola (Kayi Ushe) and thinks he’s found a way for his company to survive. Cue sass, stilettos, and a whole load of growth and acceptance.
From the first couple of songs, which sees Charlie grow up, leave Northampton with his childhood sweetheart, and move back to take over the factory after his father’s untimely death, I was beginning to dismiss the musical as a well-made but forgettable caper. But then Lola entered the stage. Ushe completely steals the show with a performance that is outrageously confident, fiercely choreographed and necessarily vulnerable. This musical has seen a fair few incarnations, but it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role after such a dazzling performance.
Harper-Jackson’s performance as the relatable everyman is solidly delivered and offers him the opportunity to show off his impressive vocal skills in his solo “Soul of a Man” among others. His character arc from yearning to escape his home town to learning to love it, and gaining a new admirer along the way (Helen Ternent as Nicola) is predictable but nonetheless entirely satisfying and heartwarming with him in the role. If there’s any part of me that is disappointed that Charlie is the one who gets a love interest, relegating Lola to the role of camp best friend (whose sexuality is not specified) that never gets a romance narrative of their own, it is easy to look past based on the quality of Ternent’s performance. She is silly, un-self-conscious and has perfect timing in her movement, both when it comes to the dance numbers and for comedic effect.
As with any musical though, the test is whether the songs are strong enough to stay with you. With tunes like “What a Woman Wants” and “Sex in Heels” , Cyndi Lauper’s music spans a range of emotions but retains a sense of identity. The “Angels” (Connor Collins, John J. Dempsey, Damon Gould, Joshua Lovell, Toyan Thomas-Browne and Chileshé Mondelle), Lola’s back-up singers and dancers, bring them to life, and the marriage of drag and musicals is joyously energetic, not to mention how stunning their outfits and make up is. In fact, the whole production is a feast for the eyes, with an OK-Go-Style use of conveyor-belts in "Everybody Say Yeah" proving director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell's talent and imagination. It’s easy to see why this show has become so popular, and any musicals that seek to have as much fun and heart as “Kinky Boots” will have some big shoes to fill. Four stars.