It’s “The Land of Lola” In the Duluth Playhouse’s “Kinky Boots”
Review By Sheryl Jensen
Opening night of Kinky Boots at the Duluth Playhouse was a joyous evening filled with song, dance, glitz, glamour and oh, yeah, pairs and pairs of sexy thigh-high boots.
The show’s exuberant score features music and lyrics by rock/pop queen Cyndi Lauper, with Harvey Fierstein’s book delivering heartfelt messages about acceptance, redemption, uniqueness, authenticity, truth, and pride.
The original 2013 Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and Lauper's win, for Best Score, made her the first woman to win alone in that category.
Based on a true story and later a non-musical film, Kinky Boots, the musical, tells the story of Charlie Price who is forced into taking over his late father’s bankrupt shoe company.
Just when he is in abject despair about ways to find a niche market for something other than the company’s “practical and pragmatical” men’s brogues, in “waltzes” Lola in need of some sturdier stilettos for her act.
Charlie and his company of dubious, downtrodden factory workers take on the charge of manufacturing “Kinky Boots” for men, needing stilettos that will hold their weight, all the while being sexy and preferably in fire-engine red.
Rocking those stilettos is Twin Cities Equity actor Mitchell Douglas as Lola, the irrepressible and effervescent drag queen (and so much more).
Looking fabulous in sexy dresses, staggering heels, wigs and makeup, Douglas makes Lola’s every appearance increasingly more commanding as the show goes on, taking over every inch of the stage. Just as Charlie says of Lola, the same for Douglas, ”Whenever you leave a room, there's always a great big gaping gap.”
Douglas is a force of nature in a physically and vocally demanding role. Whether in a song “Sex is in the Heel,” about what the special requirements of kinky boots are, or about his dad’s disappointment with him in the poignant “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Douglas brings all the colors of the rainbow to the role of Lola and his life out of drag as Simon.
Lola’s final solo, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” is breathtaking. Douglas’s appearance, first in stunning silhouette in “angel-white,” and then coming down the factory steps in the highest of heels to a spotlight center stage, is the ultimate culmination of Douglas making this role of Lola their own.
Nathan Meyer, playing Charlie Price, is “straight man” to Lola for much of the musical. While in a much less “showy” role as an Everyman, Meyer shines in a few revelatory solos. Meyer also clearly demonstrates his character’s uncertainty about what he is doing to his father’s long established company and admitting he has very different goals in life than his fiancée (Kaitlyn Callahan).
Nathan’s quest for identity is shown in his questions, “Do I belong here? Am I a fraud? Do I fit in?” By show’s end, his friendship with Lola transforms him, as he and the “out of the box” Lola, find a true friendship and mutual understanding.
Hope Nordquist is exceptional as Lauren, the factory worker who gets “executized” and encourages Charlie to be his own man and take charge of the company. Her solo, “The History of Men,” is the evening’s most comic song, as she humorously laments her unfortunate track record with men in her past and her unrequited love for Charlie.
Two of the other ensemble standouts are Shane German, the strait-laced (or is he?) George, the factory manager, and Samuel Hagen as Don, the factory bully, whose transformational appearance in the finale was a hoot.
The evening’s most screamingly funny appearance, however, came in a last minute appearance in the character of the Milan Stage Manager. Kenny Johnson starts getting laughs before he opens his mouth, and then goes on in an hysterical mishmash of Italian and ridiculously preening walks to tear the house down.
The Angels, Lola’s drag queen quartet and Greek chorus, Tanner Longshore, SJ Olson, Michael Reed and Ken Shiozawa, provide humor, back up singing, and a full complement of eye-catching drag outfits and footwear. Kudos also to Peg Ferguson for her costume work on a show that requires some real magic to pull off effectively.
For some of the company members, the English accents are inconsistent and also get in the way of clear diction, occasionally causing some of the dialogue, lyrics, and jokes to get lost. Low volume and some lack of crispness with the sound board, particularly for dialogue, also were issues at times.
Phillip Fazio, Director of Kinky Boots, keeps the show’s pacing moving, and makes effective use of Scene Designer Curtis Phillips’ gritty, aging factory set, punctuated by Lola’s world with the glitziness of a red fringed curtain, and finally. the runway of a lighted Milan fashion show curtain. Congrats to Fazio for bringing Minnesota’s regional premiere of Kinky Boots to the NorShor in a dazzling way to end the current season.
The solid ten-piece orchestra, under Ken Ahlberg’s musical direction, rocks the house and provides strong backup for the singers.
Choreographer Matthew Wagner had the unique challenge to create dances with a cast not in reliable sturdy-heeled Capezio dance shoes, but for particularly Lola and her backup Angels, men in drag and crazy high heels.
Wagner’s strong choreography is on full display in “The Land Of Lola,” “ Sex is in the Heel,” “Everybody Say Yeah,” “What a Woman Wants,” and the finale “Raise You Up/Just Be.” Dance was a particularly crucial element in this musical, and Wagner showed he was completely up to the task in his creative work.
Kinky Boots wears its themes on its sleeve by stating many of them directly:
“You change the world when you change your mind.” “Be yourself, everyone else is taken. (Oscar Wilde)” and, most importantly, “Accept someone for who they are.”
Opening night audience members were clearly buying into the show’s messages, and they were on their feet before the last note of the finale, cheering for the obviously emotionally touched company of twenty-five actors.
Kinky Boots runs July 14-30 with with all evening performances at 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. The Duluth Playhouse NorShor Theatre is at 211 E Superior St , Duluth, MN
Tickets are available at the the box office at the NorShor, by calling 218-733-7555, or by visiting the website at: https://ci.ovationtix.com/35679/production/1122790/
The Playhouse’s next Main Stage production is their 2023-24 season opener, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein running September 15-October 1.