'Kinky Boots'- Ray of Light's kicky production

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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Marshall Forte (center) and the 'Angel' chorus in Ray of Light Theatre Company's 'Kinky Boots' (photo: Erik Scanlon)
Marshall Forte (center) and the 'Angel' chorus in Ray of Light Theatre Company's 'Kinky Boots' (photo: Erik Scanlon)

It's hard not to imagine that at some point in the development of "Kinky Boots" as a stage musical (It's based on a non-musical movie comedy which was inspired by a BBC documentary) a producer assumed that Cyndi Lauper's song "True Colors" would be performed in the show, a baked-in big hit.

After all, the musical —now playing at the Victoria Theatre in a cheerful, winning Ray of Light production— was conceived by producers without a creative team signed on and is essentially a two-and-a-half hour riff on the song's theme of being, and being loved for, your authentic self. Instead, Lauper, in what eventually became her Broadway debut as a lyricist and composer, wrote a full score of originals that demonstrated their own Tony-winning mass appeal.

Despite being cultivated from a kernel of truth, the show's story —a generations-old British shoe factory is saved from ruin by making stiletto heeled boots for drag queens and transvestites— is preposterous; the script's characterizations thin; and the messages anodyne.

The script, by Harvey Fierstein, uses drag queens strictly to make points about gender stereotypes, awkwardly shimmying its way around sexuality. There's no romance for lead queen Lola in Fierstein's disappointingly simple book, which ultimately feels more akin to his workmanly "Newsies" than to "Torch Song Trilogy" or even "La Cage Aux Folles."

But Lauper's infectious score and the cast's all-in performances made the original production —and now the Ray of Light iteration — well worth seeing. Lola (aka Simon), the show's central character, a role originated on Broadway by Billy Porter, is here played by Marshall Forte, who sings with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus but has virtually no prior acting experience. It's a stellar debut.

Slender, charismatic Forte is completely convincing as sassy, commandeering Lola. And in the ballad "Hold Me In Your Heart," which he performs wearing a sparkling white "Dreamgirls"-worthy gown (There's a whole team of credited costumers), Forte is completely convincing not as a drag queen but as a woman, completely committed without a drop of camp.

Charlie Price and Marshall Forte in Ray of Light Theatre Company's 'Kinky Boots' (photo: Erik Scanlon)  

But Forte also shines as Simon, making the stirring "Not My Father's Son," perhaps Lauper's best ballad since "True Colors," and the show's most unexpectedly powerful moment.

In several upbeat production numbers, Forte is accompanied by his back-up drag "Angels," played with extraordinary coordination by Dane Paul Andres, Jon Gary Harris, Zachary Isen and Gustavo Morales (Their witty, cleverly-synced routines are choreographed by director Alex Rodriguez and Andres). It took me two full numbers to realize that they were all men.

The show's second lead, straight-laced shoemaking scion Charlie Price, is a precarious part for any actor, as the character almost inevitably falls in the shadow of drag. So it's a pleasure to report that Jake Gale, a native of Brighton, England, delivers a more than charming Charlie. On opening night, he tore into his bluesy mid-second act showcase, "Soul of a Man," with a ferocity that made it altogether clear that this is not just The Lola Show.

Chanel Tilghman as Charlie's true love, Lauren, and Matt Davis, effectively blending believable threat and comic relief in factory bully Don, stand out among a company that moves well throughout the evening in a staging that Rodriguez keeps lively and eye-catching, even in a musical that —save for Lola and the Angels' numbers— is light on dance.

An extra round of applause is due to Ray of Light for keeping ticket prices affordable, especially in light of the economic squeeze the pandemic has put on our non-profit performing arts organizations. It's a real boon to have such large scale, high production-value musical theater available for as little as $30 a ticket. Thumbs up for "Kinky Boots," and a full-on high five to its producers.

'Kinky Boots' through October 1 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. $30-$70. (415) 863-7576. www.rayoflighttheatre.com

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