York Stage in Kinky Boots, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York
YORK Stage director-producer Nik Briggs has made an astute judgement in deciding to bring out the British qualities that marked Julian Jarrold’s 2005 film version of Kinky Boots in his York premiere of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s 2012 musical.
For all its parochial Northampton setting, the American coupling of writer Fierstein and songwriter Lauper had crafted a show more rooted in grander Broadway stylings.
Briggs has retained the glitz, but located the grit too, making Kinky Boots more in keeping with Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls or even Harold Brighouse’s 1915 comedy-drama Hobson’s Choice, while still striving to match the glorious drag staging posts La Cage Aux Folles and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical.
Whether on Broadway, in the West End or now at the refurbished Grand Opera House, Kinky Boots applies a thigh-high boot up the derriere to prejudice and intolerance, championing diversity and rallying to the cause of letting people be who they are.
Charlie Price (Damien Poole) needs to learn that lesson, just as his father, factory boss Mr Price (Martyn Hunter), did before him.
“Inspired by true events”, the setting is Price & Son, a fraying shoe factory on its last legs, where Charlie feels duty bound to fill his late father’s outmoded shoes, even though factories all around have lost their sole and closed.
Girlfriend Nicola (Nicola Holliday) wants him to climb the property ladder in London, but Charlie has only gone there to please her, his boot laces still tied to his hometown and his family’s loyal workforce.
He needs more than a patriarchal conscience, however. He requires a new direction and so does Price & Son. Help sashays his way in the fabulous form of Lola (York stage debutant Samuel Lewis), an outré drag act, seeking sturdy yet slinky stilettos for not only his act but all his attendant Angels drag queens too.
Outwardly poles apart, nevertheless they find common ground: both Charlie from Northampton and Lola, boxer’s son Simon from Clacton, have endured struggles with meeting their fathers’ expectations.
Poole has all the assurance, singing craft and emotional connection that characterised his lead role as Buddy in York Stage’s Elf, but he has to negotiate the rather forced sudden switches in tone in Fierstein’s script that do not wholly convince.
The buzz surrounds Samuel Lewis’s swaggering, staggeringly good performance as Lola/Simon. What a singing voice, one to catch you like when you first heard Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville.
He can do the drag queen moves too, the shrug, the catwalk twirl, the eyes, but what marks him out is his ability at characterisation: beneath the glam carapace, the waspish putdowns and the bold front of Lola, he shows Simon’s wounded core. The complete performance, in other words.
Second York Stage new signing Amy Barrett, who has moved to the city to teach drama, brings zest, resourcefulness, fun and not a little cheek to Lauren, the factory worker on the path from chorus line to lead. Nicola Holliday does not bat an eyelid at having to be myopic, miserable, irritating, as Nicola.
Finn East is a knockout, as he so often is as the factory neanderthal, Don, while Katie Melia’s Pat, Andrew Roberts’s Harry/Delivery Guy, Jack Hooper’s George and Jess Main’s Trish all have their moments. So do Harry Kennely and Harrison Turner-Hazel’s Young Charlie and Jacob Clarke and Tom Hampshire’s Young Lola.
AJ Powell’s choreography brings out the best in both Lewis and the factory-worker ensemble, and seeing is believing with the cross-dressing Angels, where “they do boys like they’re girls”, as Blur once sang, with such swish relish.
Fierstein’s book is uneven, veering towards the histrionic on occasion, revelling in Lola’s drag queen but dragging a little too. Lauper’s lyrics are sassy; her songs are not overt pop hits but carry the panache and drama that big musical numbers should, especially Sex Is In The Heel and What A Woman Wants.
A word too for the band, under Stephen Hackshaw’s direction in the first week, and especially for Jessica Douglas, who has dashed back from her wedding to resume musical-director duties for week two.
As for the boots, they even outstrut York hen parties on a Saturday night.