You’d expect a show that won the Tony Award for Best Musical, with songs by Cyndi Lauper, a book by the great Harvey Fierstein and cast full of drag queens to be a ton of fun. But the touring production of ‘Kinky Boots,” now at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, turns out to be a half-ton of fun at best.
The problem doesn’t seem to have much to do with the work of Lauper or Fierstein. The songs are lively and tuneful and the book is full of great lines. The fact-based story is a clever twist on a classic underdog fable, and the drag queens are hugely entertaining.
But, on opening night, the sound mix left singers all but incomprehensible. The 12-piece pit orchestra drowned out the vocalists during almost every song. In one emotionally central song, the inspirational “Soul of a Man,” even the offstage background singers drowned out the soloist. Probably fewer than one out of 10 words of Lauper’s lyrics was intelligible. If you keyed into the whispers of the audience members around you, you heard a lot of people saying “What’d he say?” and their friends replying “I don’t know.”
It’s such a shame. People who follow musical theater have been waiting for “Kinky Boots” to come to the area for a very long time.
The story deal’s with a middle-of-the-road young man who reluctantly takes control of his family’s failing shoe factory. A chance encounter with a drag queen leads him to reinvent his business into a successful maker of flamboyant high-heeled footwear that can support the weight of a full-grown man.
There are subplots galore. The young man’s new passion for business interferes with his relationship with his girlfriend. One of the women who works in the factory is secretly in love with him. One of the long-time factory workers is homophobic and verbally abusive to the drag queen, who has become the company’s show designer. There’s a boxing match and a fashion show.
Some of Lauper’s songs are great, or at least the melodies are. Some of the tunes stick with you a full day later. You have to infer that the lyrics are also great, even though you can’t hear them, because Lauper has always written great lyrics, and because she won a Tony Award for her score. She’s the only woman who has won the Tony in that category without being part of a songwriting team.
Adam Kaplan, who plays Charlie, the reluctant shoemaker, has a pleasing Everyman stage presence but he doesn’t have enough power in his voice for some of the songs, especially “Soul of a Man.” J, Harrison Ghee gives the most impressive acting performance as drag queen Lola and Tiffany Engen delivers the most engaging vocal performance as factory worker Lauren.
One interesting casting point: the actor who plays George in this touring production is ’80s TV star Jim J. Bullock, also known as Jm J. Bullock, who was on the hit shows “Too Close for Comfort,” “Alf” and “Hollywood Squares.”
There’s plenty to like in this touring production. The ensemble work is excellent, the 11-piece orchestra is killer on Lauper pop-rock scores, and the sets and costumes command the eye throughout. The script is fun and moderately moving.
Maybe the sound will be better as the run goes on. It would seem to be a matter of someone caring enough to twist a few knobs so the singers can be heard. But Tuesday’s opening-night audience left thinking just as much about what they had missed as what they had seen.
Details: Though Dec. 6, Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $55-$130 plus service charge and up. Information: 813-229-7827, strazcenter.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com.martinclear.