The Muny’s Flashy, Fun ‘Kinky Boots’ Will ‘Feed Your Fire’

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A powerhouse cast makes sure we fall head-over-high-heels about “Kinky Boots,” a flashy and fun musical that soars into the starry night at the Muny.

This regional premiere is polished to perfection. For the first time, I understood the show’s heart and soul, and how its universality touched people, becoming an international smash-hit and winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the Olivier Award and a Grammy for original cast recording.

The basic premise is simple yet resonates. It is inspired by true events and a BBC documentary, which was adapted into a 2005 British feature film with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola and Joel Edgerton as Charlie. A failing shoe factory owner teams up with a drag queen to save his family business by diversifying the product. That niche market in women’s footwear would be “kinky boots” – bright, glittery sturdy stilettos made well to meet the needs of flamboyant performers-in-drag.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Charlie of Northampton, meet Simon of Clacton. They are from different worlds, but share the weight of parental expectations and self-acceptance issues. Their duet “I’m Not Your Father’s Son” is an exclamation point on the matter. They work through this and more, all to the eclectic beats of rockstar Cyndi Lauper’s first foray into show tunes, with new wave and club music influences.

The unlikely pair find a common bond, as do the employees in this relatable workplace comedy. One enlightened blue-collar bloke says: “When you can change your mind, you can change the world!”

The message of tolerance is a fitting one for Gay Pride Month as the musical celebrates individuality and inclusion. It’s wrapped in a feel-good dance party with get-on-your-feet rhythms, and the cast is brimming with vim and vigor.

Many elements make this first U.S. theatrical production outside Broadway/national tours so special, but one factor is certain: casting performers with experience in “Kinky Boots” was a stroke of genius. And it shows in the brisk crisp and snappy staging.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The theatricality of swaggering sparkplug J. Harrison Ghee as Lola, who toured internationally in the role and was a Broadway replacement, thrusts him into legendary diva status. Looking and sounding like Whitney Houston in her prime, he tugs at everyone’s heartstrings in “Hold Me in Your Heart.”

We are truly in “The Land of Lola,” as it’s obvious from Ghee’s first entrance. During “Sex Is in the Heel,” he seizes the expansive stage, strutting with major attitude. His moves in those high heels are a triumph over physics.

The lithe and blithe Ghee showcases his dramatic flair and knows how to get a laugh, tossing off book writer Harvey Fierstein’s pointed barbs with ease.

Then there is Graham Scott Fleming as Charlie, who plays the shoe factory heir apparent with conviction. His conflicts are genuine. However, his vocal prowess is where he really shines.

His vocal range is well-suited for Tony-winner Lauper’s compositions, and he interprets the heartfelt lyrics well, especially in “Step One” and “The Soul of a Man.” He has had much success in Toronto, including nabbing a Canadian theater award nomination for his performance as Charlie.

Tony-nominated Taylor Louderman, a native of Bourbon, Mo., who began as a Muny Teen ten years ago, showcases her multiple talents reprising the goofy lovestruck assembly line worker Lauren that she played on Broadway.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

In her standout number, “The History of Wrong Guys,” she demonstrates her deft physical comedy skills and how she has come into her own. It’s a blissful Muny moment. The crowd may not have noticed her at first for entrance applause, but she sure earned a big ovation after that number.

The perky Louderman, with several Broadway credits and a few key roles at the Muny – last seen as Amneris in “Aida” (the best thing about that 2015 production), took off as Regina in “Mean Girls” to appear in this show.

The ensemble is a tight mix, with Paul Whitty a standout as bigoted foreman Don.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

John Scherer, a master of comic timing as evident in his turns in “The Foreigner” and “Noises Off!” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is hilarious as the old-school manager George.

So is Jen Perry, who reprises the role of saucy older worker Trish she originated on Broadway.

Several cast members were in the Broadway production, which opened April 2013 and ran for six years and 1,400 performances until April 7 this year, including Meryn Becket, Holly Davis and Maggie McDowell, and Angels Callan Bergman, Ian Fitzgerald and Kyle Post. Angel Ricky Schroeder was in the national tour.

Caroline Bowman, who plays Charlie’s unlikable materialistic social-climbing fiancé Nicola, originated the role of Maggie and then closed as Nicola in April. Ross Lekites plays Charlie’s friend Harry after being in Broadway and national tour ensembles.

St. Louis performers are also an integral part of the action. Omega Jones, in his debut as Simon Sr., has a tear-jerking moment at the nursing home where Lola is entertaining. Veteran Zoe Vonder Haar is funny as the Milan Stage Manager. Victor Landon and Khaydn M. Adams are the energetic young Charlie and Simon characters respectively.

When the eight drag queens known as The Angels make their striking entrance, it’s a magical Muny moment – and received an enthusiastic ovation.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Other high-stepping moments include the Act One finale, “Everybody Say Yeah,” which is a marvel of movement on conveyor belts, and the rousing grand finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” which should empower everyone to “Feed your fire.”

Music Director Ryan Fielding Garrett, who conducted the “Kinky Boots” national tour, skillfully drives the catchy tunes and heart-tugging ballads.

The human connection is an important part of this show, just as it is at the oldest and biggest outdoor theater in the country. And the Muny connections for this show, I feel, have boosted its value and worth. Namely, the original stylish direction and cheerful choreography of Jerry Mitchell, one of Broadway’s most lauded artists who won a Tony Award for “Kinky Boots” choreography. Involved in 50 Broadway shows, he earned his Equity card at the Muny and was a Webster University student.

His work is recreated here by director DB Bonds, who played Emmett in “Legally Blonde” eight years ago at the Muny, and choreographer Rusty Mowery, who worked on Muny productions “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde.”

Those special ties just boost the care you notice in this production, a passion project for all involved.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

On the technical side, the creative team’s work continues to shine on the new stage with the upgrades, especially light, sound and video screens.

Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt’s grid work in the Price and Sons Factory is efficient, functional and flows with purpose. His glitzy touch to the Milan runway is as over the top as the boots – his ‘wow’ moment. Video Designer Shawn Duan seamlessly extended the expansive exterior shots.

Also stepping up his game is Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer, who made sure the musical numbers glow and sparkle.

Co-sound designer John Shivers won a Tony Award for “Kinky Boots.” He and David Patridge have been a team at the Muny since 2015.

Costume designer Gregg Barnes, two-time Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Follies” revival, provides his impressive Tony-nominated “Kinky Boots” designs, and The Angels and Lola’s bold eye-popping outfits befit fashionistas. Costume coordination is by Lindsay McWilliams.

The wig work is also outstanding, with original design by Josh Marquette, and work by additional wig designer Kelley Jordan.

“Kinky Boots” finds its footing early on and grows in goodwill as people build upon their dream with helping hands. Endearing in portrayals and intent, its power is a slow build, but it’s lasting, and that is “The Most Beautiful Thing.” And you’ll walk away lifted by this new outlook.

The Muny presents “Kinky Boots” every evening at 8:15 p.m. June 17-25. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org

Photo by Phillip Hamer

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