Too queer for Kinky Boots

By , November 4, 2012 9:00 pm

This afternoon, I saw Kinky Boots in downtown Chicago with my mom and some family friends. It was the final Chicago performance before the show heads to Broadway, and it has been getting solid reviews. The musical – based on the 2005 movie, based on the true story (PDF warning) - follows the revitalization of a failing shoe company as it switches over to producing “kinky boots” (apparently a real term in the UK) for drag performers. Kinky Boots had music by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, neither exactly artistic slouches.

The show had fantastic costumes, great sets, and very good performances all around. It didn’t have really catchy tunes (three hours after leaving, I’d be pressed to hum even one) but it was supposed to be a feel-good story musical comedy, so it shouldn’t be too faulted on that regard. For all the production value, however, I had a pretty lousy time as an audience member and left feeling very disappointed.

I’ll take part of the blame for that disappointment; I am not the musical’s target audience. I am more liberal, more educated about gender issues, and certainly more  queer than the mainstream musical-attending audience. If I wanted to see drag performers (which I generally do not…) I should have made a night of it in Boystown, not gone to the Loop to pay $100 a seat. (To be fair, my mom paid for the seat.) Kinky Boots felt in some ways similar to The Cosby Show or Will and Grace, in that it will undoubtedly help normalize a minority community to mainstream America, but also isn’t agreatrepresentation of that community. It’s a step forward, and certainly better than nothing, but not exactly “authentic.”

All of those issues, however, are at least to some extent my own. It was the more fundamental political problems with the show that really left a sour taste in my mouth.

The biggest problem was the drag character, Lola. Charlie (the owner of the show factory) bumps into her in London. They have a fortuitous conversation about the dearth of men’s-sized, sturdy, sexy, kinky boots (see the UK usage above) and it gets Charlie thinking about a new niche market for his family’s failing shoe business. That’s all well and good, but Lola was an archetype used to fuel Charlie’s character growth, not a fleshed out character in her own right.

The first problem was Lola’s lack of a solid identity. At different points she seemed to identify as a transvestive, a drag performer, gay, straight, male, female, and other. Those categories absolutely overlap, and I would have been thrilled to have Lola say “Why can’t I be both? Or neither?” But she didn’t. Instead, the writing seemed to go out of its way to avoid pinning down Lola’s identity, and at a detriment to her character. The second act opens with her protesting when another character assumes she’s a gay man. “Great,” I thought. “Finally, Lola gets some character development!” Nope. A whole song allllmost giving her some depth, but then running in the other direction at the last minute.

This was particularly egregious when placed alongside Charlie, who had a (boring, predictable) love story with a woman at the factory. Charlie got to have hopes and dreams outside of the factory walls. Lola (and all of her unnamed, indistinguishable backup dancers) did not. That lack of motivation made Lola seem vapid and shallow. The only thing that mattered to her seemed to be shoes. There were moments of acknowledgement that her father hadn’t been supportive of her, but those were overshadowed by SHOES! DRESSES! MAKEUP!

All of that was compounded by the fact that it would have been so simple for Lola to explain herself and her identity; two or three lines of dialog would have done the trick. I’m curious if earlier drafts of the script actually went there. The opening of act two, mentioned above, seemed to really fall short, almost as if someone said “Nope. Too ‘real’ for Middle America.”

I’d be curious to hear from anyone who has seen the movie. It’s on my list, but since it’s unavailable on Netflix Streaming I don’t know when I’ll put together the energy to rent/download it. Is it worth seeing? Does it avoid any of these issues? I’m not eager to find it, based on my experiences with the musical…

2 Responses to “Too queer for Kinky Boots”

  1. Shelby Green says:

    Hilly (my wife) saw the movie and apparently she says the movie carries itself more as a dramatic film with comedic moments similar to Billy Elliot than the stage show you saw. I haven’t seen it yet but would like to go about renting it.

  2. Jaye says:

    I’ve seen the movie, and it was okay, but not really my cup of tea. I mostly saw it to watch Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was interesting watching him act outside of his normal box, but other than that, the film didn’t do too much for me.

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