February 2024

Kinky Boots: "Comfort Theatre" After the Before Times

Lissa Tyler Renaud

It's all in the context. Kinky Boots the musical is basically the story of two people from vastly different backgrounds, each with a problem that's solved by their banding together. Some critics—finding fault with a show that audiences have stubbornly insisted on loving—complained that the show was cheesy, sentimental, sermonizing, overly earnest, novice. Herewith, I am coining the term "comfort theatre," theatre's version of "comfort food," or food that may not satisfy the snobs but is deeply satisfying, consoling. After so many years of intentionally "difficult" theatre at the fore, and several years of the pandemic's devouring many of our most beloved theatres and changing our overall lives irreversibly, the production I saw at the Berkeley Playhouse arrived in our post-pandemic midst like a shiny red bird alighting in an ashen landscape. Sophisticated, exuberant, tender; Kinky Boots: comfort theatre from the Before Times flying resplendent in today's context—nerve-wracking, bedeviled Now.

Well-known in the U.S. as both actor and writer, four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein based his book for the musical Kinky Boots on a film based on a "mostly" true story. The show first ran on Broadway from 2013 to 2019, and started its national touring in 2014. After a critic-savaged start, it garnered a dizzying number of coveted awards. These included Tonys for Best Musical and Best Actor, and a historic Tony for Cyndi Lauper (forever labeled a "pop icon") for her ingenious, high-wattage score. From very early on, the show has "had legs" in productions around the world, with still more recognitions and long runs in numerous countries.

Along the way, time and travel have changed the productions: scenes have come and gone, emphases have shifted depending on audience and social milieu. One focus of debates has been whether a major character, Lola, has to be played as black and gay. Billy Porter originated the role that way, and so definitively that, where possible, it's been a given that it'll always be done that way. Many fans who have seen vamping, campy versions of the show are surprised by comments like this one: "There's really nothing in the text that strongly supports any sexuality for Lola. Straight, gay, bi, asexual--it's not really touched upon. All we know is that she likes dressing as a fabulous woman." And in fact, Fierstein himself said he wrote the role as white and straight; there are wild rumors of successful shows featuring white, straight Lolas in various national and international locations. Nevertheless, for ten years, social media types on discussion threads have been arguing one side or the other, underlining that script "changes" mean we haven't all necessarily seen the same show.


Julia Morgan's church, 1908. Longtime arts venue, now the Berkeley Playhouse. Credit: UC-Berkeley-Environmental-Design-Archives.

In his program notes, director-choreographer William Thomas Hodgson wrote: "I feel like we have our own special sauce in
Berkeley." Indeed, even the theatre itself is "Berkeley": it was built by crack architect Julia Morgan (1872–1957), the local girl who made good here, then in Paris, then here again, breaking professional barriers to women, giving California 700 of its best buildings with her Classical/Arts and Crafts vision. She said the Berkeley Playhouse, originally designed as a church, was her best Craftsmen-style building. Today, the architecture makes the audience feel like a congregation at the Church of Performing Arts. To keep the space intimate, the music pit is under the stage, visible only through a small opening. From
there, the music seems to emanate uncannily from the whole
structure. For this show, Kenji Harada conducted, with pizzazz and delicacy, nine game, impressive musicians, to resounding affect.

Lola (B Noel Thomas) performs with her troupe.
Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

Berkeley is also famous for an ethnically-culturally inclusive, adventurous-in-the-arts, Nobel Prize-rich population. Here, and in its next-door cities Oakland and San Francisco, gay culture in all its forms has pretty much come with the territory since the 1970s. This meant that the show wasn't "introducing" most of the audience to the notion of male performers dressed as, or having become, women. I thought this freed the show to mine themes, ideas, relationships. A case in point: B Noel Thomas (Bay Area Theatre Critics Award winner) played Lola with all the over-the-top, sparkly glamor and wit we could hope for; her four-octave, "baritone-to-soprano" singing voice was something to hear. Thomas is an outspokenly trans woman, and she apparently tweaked some of the play to make it what she called "relevant." But it was her hushed, spare moments that really made her performance—the times her Lola made friends with people outside her world, showed kindness to a bully, or forgave her friend, Charlie Price.

Friendship: Lola (B Noel Thomas) and Charlie (Seth Hanson) share a
quiet moment. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

Charlie, played with marvelous range by Seth Hanson (San Francisco Conservatory of Music), started out as something of a schlemiel, and it was a long haul to his transformation. Reluctantly in London with the Wrong Girl (charming Grace Margaret Craig), Charlie reluctantly inherited a failing shoe factory back home, where he reluctantly laid off the longtime factory workers. He and Lola met by chance: she and her drag performing cohorts needed a sturdier boot than the ones made for women; Charlie needed a new footwear product to resuscitate the factory… and the "kinky boot" was born. They became partners, and we followed Charlie as he and Lola re-built the business, re-built his relationships with his factory workers, and he found the Right Girl right under his nose. As Hanson took us pitch perfect through Charlie's steps and many missteps, his free movement and fully gorgeous singing voice emerged gradually, with splendid impact.

An important component of Comfort Theatre is plot, and never has a show had more plot than Kinky Boots. It also had sub-plots so developed and rich that Kinky Boots seemed to have multiple plots: when one plot needed to slow down, there was always another one at the ready. Although each of these storylines could have stood alone, they were all loosely linked, then tightly linked and finally, like a precise mechanism, all the stories perfectly, triumphantly interlocked on a makeshift runway in Italy.

Sample plots:

Nicola—from the start, clearly the "wrong girl" for Charlie—tried deviously to carry out Charlie's deceased father's plan to demolish the shoe factory and build condominiums. Nicola dumped Charlie when he refused.

Lauren (No'eau Kahalekulu) sings about her fearsome crush.
Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

Lauren—who emerged as the "right girl" for Charlie—was the worker who first gave Charlie the idea not to close but to revamp the factory, stayed by him in tough times, and in the end won his heart.

NOTE: No'eau Kahalekulu created a painful, hilarious picture of what it means to have a secret crush, and gave Lauren's song, "The History of Wrong Guys," an extraordinary rendition: at first
reserved, slowly building to a heart-stopping leap onto a table in adorable, full-throated agony. Inventive and unforgettable.


Lola's "angels" show off her designs for boots. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

The Milan Fashion Show: under pressure of an upcoming show in Milan, Charlie had a meltdown, managed to offend everyone, they all walked out on him—Lola and her companion drag "Angels," as well as the factory workers—leaving Charlie without either boots or travel money for Milan.


Don the bully (Danny Cozart) challenged the wrong person to a boxing match. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

The Two Challenges of Lola and Don (the Factory Homophobe). Don demanded to meet Lola in the boxing ring, where she (a trained boxer) trounced him then let him win—winning his friendship. In return, she challenged him to "accept someone as they are." Instead of "accepting" Lola, as we expected, Don accepted Charlie's frailties, and even got the protesting workers to return to work and chip in a week's pay each, for boots for the Milan show. (This last seemed nostalgic in an area that had seen multiple groups striking all year.)


Charlie (Seth Hanson) and Lola (B Noel Thomas) triumphant in
Milan. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.


I did have the requisite quibbles: The cast didn't quite hit their "English accents" mark, always a bugaboo for American productions. The singing was heavily over-miked, considering the fullness of their voices and the moderate-ish size of the space. There were a few awfully long, "dead" crosses to move someone from mid-stage to offstage. There were some minor set and spotlight snafus, which everyone handled with pluck.

Among my many pleasures: The members of the drag troupe inhabited their roles with charming aplomb—feisty, kittenish, tongue -in-cheek, loyal—and their costumes imaginatively supported whatever they were playing. When Lola joined the factory, her troupe donned matching black jackets to up their business image—but there was still just enough of the loud red peeking out below to remind us of the world where their hearts really lay. And in Milan, instead of hiring professional models, to save money the troupe modeled the Kinky Boots themselves, strutting in their outlandish interpretations of high fashion. (My favorite was a parody of an Alexander McQueen design- -half Scottish tartan, half froufrou tutu.)

Multiple plots and major performances aside, it was always the titular Boots that were the central character, and all they came to stand for: loneliness and other not-belonging, hurtful father-son relationships, grief, the role the expectations of others should play in our lives; lovers mis-matched, friendships broken, loyalties frayed—all balanced by self-sacrifice, self-definition, resourcefulness and, just right for Berkeley, "inclusive" communities, and the power of workers' cooperation.


Grand Finale, Milan, full cast. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.


The theatre is a non-profit, and invests its ticket earnings in professional training for up-and-coming performers.

*    *    *


Kinky Boots, Music & Lyrics: Cyndi Lauper; Book: Harvey Fierstein. Directed and choreographed by William Thomas Hodgson. Music directed by Kenji Harada. Premiere: September 8, 2023. Venue: Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley, California.


Rehearsal: Lola (B. Noel Thomas) and her drag performing troupe. (0:32)

Berkeley Playhouse: Kinky Boots promotional video (0:39)


Lissa Tyler Renaud BA Acting, MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History, summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project for the actor-scholar (1985- ); lifelong actress, director, dramaturg, recitalist. As visiting professor, master teacher, and speaker, she has taught, lectured and published widely on acting, theatre criticism and the early European avant-garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. Much translated. Longtime member International Association of Theatre Critics. Awards include Ford Foundation and National Science Council grants. Book publications include The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge) and an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Founding editor (English) for French-English Critical Stages (UNESCO) and Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China; editor, Selected Plays of Stan Lai (3 vols., U. Michigan Press). She is a senior writer for Scene4.
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

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