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
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
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
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
nothing in the text that
strongly supports any
sexuality for Lola.
Straight, gay, bi,
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
for ten years, social
media types on discussion
threads have been arguing
one side or the other,
underlining that script
we haven't all
necessarily seen the same
Julia Morgan's church, 1908. Longtime arts venue, now the Berkeley Playhouse.
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
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.
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
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'
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.
Berkeley Playhouse: Kinky Boots promotional video (0:39)