Reviewer's Rating

4.5
Performances
4
Costumes
4.5
Sets
4.5
Lighting
4
Sound
4
Direction
4
Choreography
4.5
Musical Direction

People's Rating

5
Performances
5
Costumes
5
Sets
5
Lighting
4
Sound
5
Direction
5
Choreography
5
Musical Direction

Combined Rating

4.75
Performances
4.5
Costumes
4.75
Sets
4.75
Lighting
4
Sound
4.5
Direction
4.5
Choreography
4.75
Musical Direction

Eighteen years ago, the documentary Trouble at the Top: The Kinky Boot Factory aired on UK television. It told the story of British shoemaking company WJ Brookes, based in Northampton in England’s East Midlands, which faced seemingly insuperable obstacles in the 1990s owing to fierce competition from imports, rising interest rates and the state of the sterling currency. But its owner, Steve Pateman, succeeded in reversing the fortunes of the firm by tapping into a lucrative new market, selling footwear designed especially for male cross-dressers and drag queens.

The creators of 2003 hit British comedy Calendar Girls were then inspired by the BBC documentary to make the comeback story of WJ Brookes into a film, which ultimately resulted in Kinky Boots, released in 2005 and starring Australia’s own Joel Edgerton. And in 2012, with a book by Harvey Fierstein (La Cage aux Folles, Newsies) and music and lyrics by eighties pop icon Cyndi Lauper, the musical version of Kinky Boots premiered on stage in Chicago. The following year, it opened on Broadway, won six Tony Awards including the top prize for Best Musical and, as a result of high ticket sales, recouped its initial investment of US$13.5m (A$18m) in less than seven months. In 2015, Kinky Boots opened on London’s West End, where it quickly became a hot ticket and took out the prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

To say, therefore, that Kinky Boots arrives in Sydney to be met by high expectations of critics and the public alike is an understatement. Adding to that expectation is the fact of Kinky Boots having pipped Matilda (a universally-acclaimed smash, with a score penned by our own Tim Minchin) for several Tony Awards. So, the time has arrived for Harbour City audiences to make their own judgments on Kinky Boots, which has stomped into the Capitol Theatre for a limited season.

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Callum Francis and the cast of Kinky Boots (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

On stage (as it did in the 2005 film), Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price (Toby Francis), battling to save the shoe factory he inherited from his father (Glenn Butcher). Not only is the factory the family business, but the lifeblood of the town, ensuring a sizeable number of its residents remain in work. Charlie’s efforts, however, aren’t met with enthusiasm by his fiancé Nicola (Teagan Wouters), who’s set her sights on a more cosmopolitan existence in London and is desperate to leave the country life behind. She urges Charlie to sell up and himself bid farewell to Northampton.

But Charlie cannot let the factory die, a resolve that’s fuelled in large part by a fear of disappointing his late father. A chance meeting with drag performer, Lola (Callum Francis), becomes the catalyst for Charlie’s plan to rescue the factory – a plan that will represent its final chance at survival. The process of executing that plan allows Charlie to get to know Lola (as well as her male alter ego, Simon) and realise that though the two are outwardly distinctly different, each profoundly laments their failure to live up to their own father’s expectations. That realisation, rather affectingly illustrated by their duet on ‘Not my father’s son’, demonstrates the simple, inescapable fact that, regardless of their circumstances, people are people.

It might not be a faultless show – there’s maybe room to delve deeper into the central themes of prejudice and intolerance, and the pace of the second act isn’t quite as cracking as the first – but Kinky Boots is undeniably triumphant as a joyous celebration of those who differ from societal norms. From the moment he walks onto the stage, Callum Francis is electric, proving himself the perfect performer to bring Lola to life and showcase why being ‘different’ can be so utterly fabulous. He oozes star presence, has wonderful comedic timing and is consistently impressive vocally, be it on a high energy, disco-infused track like ‘Sex is in the heel’ or while channelling the late Whitney Houston on ballad ‘Hold me in your heart’. It’s a strident, confident and captivating performance and one of the finest you’ll see on the musical theatre stage this year. Callum Francis is flanked by six ‘Angels’ from the club at which Lola performs (Blake Appelqvist, James Delisco Beeks, Euan Doidge, Ryan Gonzalez, Mark Stefanoff and Mitchell Woodcock), all of whom dazzle on stage with their astonishing athleticism and slick dance moves.

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The cast of Kinky Boots (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

As Charlie, Toby Francis is also ideally cast, creating a character who’s unmistakably wide-eyed and finding his feet in the world. His Charlie is an appropriate contrast to Lola – whereas she has a strong sense of self-identity and is comfortable in her own skin, he is lost and, while certain he doesn’t want to follow the path his father wishes, struggles to find his place in the world. Toby Francis’ portrayal of Charlie gives us the chance to witness a believable and satisfying transformation of the character as the show progresses. There’s also a wonderful chemistry between Toby and Callum, and despite their characters’ emergence from two different worlds, we’re convinced the two could genuinely come to be close friends able to affect real change on one another.

As shoe factory worker Lauren, who comes to play an integral role in reversing the fortunes of Price & Son, Sophie Wright doesn’t get many opportunities to leave her mark, but in a quirky and immensely entertaining performance of ‘The History of Wrong Guys’ (possibly the closest Lauper comes in the show to reproducing her signature eighties sound), Wright is terrific and makes the most from the five-minute scene. It’s a highlight of the show’s first Act.

Across the board, the cast is first-rate. Joe Kosky is strong in his portrayal of the factory’s alpha male who unashamedly espouses homo- and transphobic attitudes, but ultimately proves he’s capable of change. Nathan Carter is affable and a man of obvious integrity as factory manager, George. And Teagan Wouters delivers as Charlie’s driven and haughty fiancé Nicola, so completely determined to discard any remnants of her Northampton life.

On top of the performances, what makes Kinky Boots so successful as a stage musical is its simple but irrepressible championing of the importance of individuality, and accepting and embracing those whose ideas and values differ from our own. The show’s climatic final scene, which explicitly tells audiences to just be who they want to be, is one of the most uplifting and feel-good finales you’ll see in any show, sending those who attend back onto the streets with a message that’s equally important for all attendees to live and breathe – regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation. And in a day and age when issues of intolerance and discrimination are arguably as rife as ever before, there’s surely an integral place for artistic pieces that work hard to bring home those simple unassailable truths. Kinky Boots should not be missed.

 

Kinky Boots is currently playing Sydney’s Capitol Theatre before heading to Brisbane for performances from 22 August. For more details, head to kinkybootsthemusical.com.au

 

 

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