Kinky Boots Musical review

KINKY BOOTS

5 – 14 October
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes – or, as it were, their patent leather stiletto boots. Kinky Boots, the musical about how changing your mind can change the world, has arrived in Singapore, and audiences are getting ready to say “yeah!”

Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Joel Edgerton, which was in turn loosely inspired by the true story of the W.J. Brooks Shoe Company in Northamptonshire. 80s rock icon Cyndi Lauper wrote the music and lyrics, her first time composing a musical, with Harvey Fierstein supplying the book.

After tryouts in Chicago in 2012, the show debuted on Broadway the next year and proceeded to win big at the Tony Awards, clinching prizes including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The Broadway and West End productions are still running. This production is the U.S. national touring company, who have been travelling around the states since September 2017, and who visited three cities in China in July 2018 before the Singapore, uh, leg of their tour.

The show is mostly set at the Price and Son shoe factory in Northampton. Charlie Price (Lance Bordelon) has just inherited the business from his father, and finds himself at a crossroads, on the brink of having to shut down the factory and fire workers he’s known all his life. A chance encounter with the fabulous drag queen Lola (Jos N. Banks) sets Charlie on a new course. Charlie learns that the boots on Lola’s heels keep snapping off, because she is wearing shoes not designed to support the weight of a man.

With a push from factory worker Lauren (Sydney Patrick), who is nursing a crush on Charlie even though he’s engaged to Nicola (Hayley Lampart), Charlie decides that from here on out, Price and Son will be serving a ‘niche market’. Some of the workers, especially the boorish Don (Adam Du Plessis), baulk at Lola and her troupe of drag queens, known as ‘the Angels’. The unlikely partners of Charlie and Lola realise that what they have in common is stronger than what they don’t and set about designing and manufacturing a range of boots to showcase at the Milan International Shoe Exhibition.

Kinky Boots has often been described as a feel-good musical, and it fits that description in the best way. Some shows that strive to be life-affirming and inspiring can come off as schmaltzy or hollow, but Kinky Boots does have something to say, and is irrepressibly joyous as it shouts its message of acceptance from the rooftops. The show touches on gender roles and identity features a clash of cultures between more conservative working-class people and the LGBT+ community.

In its plot and characters, the adaptation is very faithful to the film. While it’s flashy and energetic, Kinky Boots is also a gentle show, and serves as a great entry-level experience for audiences who might not understand or haven’t gotten into drag culture. It’s certainly less intimidating than going to a full-on drag club for the first time might be, and as such is a great gateway. There has been some debate about the mainstreaming of drag, which was once something only a marginalised community partook in, but the appreciation and enjoyment of the art form can go a long way in fostering understanding between people who seem outwardly different.

Some of the show’s songs are disco-tinged numbers that one could picture Lauper herself performing, and several are designed to get everyone in the audience tapping their toes and clapping along. There’s an infectiousness to the Act One closer “Everybody Say Yeah”, and to the rousing finale “Just Be”. However, there are also more traditional Broadway show-stoppers in which the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and belt out their feelings, like “Not My Father’s Son”, “Hold Me in Your Heart” and “Soul of a Man”.

The setting of a shoe factory might seem drab, but there’s a cleverness to David Rockwell’s scenic design which sprinkles just a bit of magic dust on a worn-in working class environment. Subtle changes in Kenneth Posner’s lighting design set the mood, and at one point, the conveyor belt splits apart into a multi-section treadmill that the performers dance and do acrobatics on. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are stars in their own right; our audience cheered and clapped each time Lola or the Angels strutted onstage in a new get-up.

Bordelon embodies the ‘straight man’ (in every sense) archetype to a tee, playing a character who is hapless but a good distance from being a bumbling idiot. Just like every performer in the show, Bordelon moves well, though he only really gets to showcase this in the very last number. He hits all the high notes but did sound a little bit nasally at our performance, perhaps as the result of a cold.

Banks eats the Lola role up with great aplomb. Just like one must while dancing in those heels, he finds the ideal balance, such that Lola is always the centre of attention but never obnoxiously so. Every gesture, step, flip of the hair that Lola does, it all informs her character and helps the audience learn who she is. During the backstage tour, we were told that on this production, Banks and all the actors playing the Angels do their own makeup. Lola’s duet with Charlie, “Not My Father’s Son”, is easily the show’s most emotional moment, with her soaring power ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart” coming in a close second.

The Angels, played by Brandon Alberto, Jordan Archibald, Eric Stanton Betts, Derek Brazeau, Ernest Terrelle Williams and Philip Stock, pull off impressive acrobatics and show off some spectacularly toned abs and thighs.

The petite Patrick proves quite the firecracker, throwing every fibre of her being into “The History of Wrong Guys”, which is one of the show’s funniest numbers. The Lauren character does fall a little too neatly into the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype, but Patrick has fun with it, over-the-top accent and all.

The other featured female role is Charlie’s demanding fiancé Nicola, who is the nominal antagonist. Some might say that the show, as the movie did before it, conflates a woman being ambitious with being pushy, but couples arguing over one party’s business decisions is something that happens often in real life.

Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleaser that is anything but pedestrian. Even though it does follow certain templates used by other musicals before, including the English working-class settings that inspired Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, Kinky Boots has a loveable personality all its own. Speed-strut, don’t walk, to the Sands Theatre now.

Jedd Jong

Photos: Sébastien Tessier/Kinky Boots

Now playing at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Singapore. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit the Marina Bay Sands site for tickets and more information.

There is a 16 and above advisory (some mature content)

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The Lion King musical (Singapore, 2018)

THE LION KING

Marina Bay Sands Theatre, Singapore
27 June – 23 September 2018

Photo by Jedd Jong

In 2014, the Lion King stage musical overtook The Phantom of the Opera to become the highest-grossing title in the history of stage and screen. This reviewer has a soft spot for Phantom, but it’s hard to deny that The Lion King’s crown as ruler of Broadway and beyond is well-deserved.

After a record-breaking eight-month-long engagement in 2011, The Lion King returns to Singapore. The show is based on the now-classic 1994 Disney animated film of the same name. It’s a story so familiar that it’s almost redundant to synopsise it, but here’s the short version: Simba, son of King Mufasa, must face the destiny he’s been running from after surviving a tragedy engineered by his power-hungry uncle Scar. Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest, must convince the rightful king to reclaim the throne and fight for the good of all the animals who inhabit the Pridelands.

While most Disney Theatrical adaptations of animated films are largely literal and generally resemble their source material, director Julie Taymor leapt far out of the box for The Lion King. The film’s anthropomorphised animals are realised through puppets of various designs and functions.

Photo by Joan Marcus ©Disney

Pulling from various cultural influences and melding them into a hypnotic whole, Taymor adopted an approach that incorporates Balinese and Javanese dance, Bunraku-like puppetry, shadow puppetry and masks. It’s a visually stimulating experience. As the line in “Circle of Life” goes, “there is far too much to take in here” – and “too much” is just the right amount.

The film’s memorable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are supplemented with additional songs by the duo. Further shaping the unique soundscape is African choral music by Lebo M., and expansions on the film’s score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin. It’s eclectic and just as it is with the visuals, the disparate influences of the show’s score could’ve been an inchoate mishmash, but it is just the opposite. The stage is flanked by two percussionists playing African and Latin drums, adding a textural layer to the music from the orchestra pit.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Right from the get-go, The Lion King is an emotional experience. The show begins with the mandrill Rafiki issuing the cry “Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!” – Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father”. The sun rises over the Pridelands as creatures big and small flood onto the stage. The visual dynamism, the inventiveness of the puppet designs and the physicality of the performers are all established in the powerful opening number.

This is a show that asks a lot of its performers. The core concept is that of the ‘double event’, meaning the actors who are manipulating puppets must, in a sense, perform the role twice, as both they and the puppet are visible. The choreography by Garth Fagan strikingly evokes the forms of each animal the performers are representing, and despite not literally resembling the beasts, the overall effect created by the performers and puppets is easy to buy into.

Ntsepa Pitjeng is a veteran of the production, having played Rafiki in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, China and Switzerland. The character is male in the animated film but was reimagined as female based on Taymor’s desire for more female characters in the show, and informed by how many healers and spiritual leaders in traditional African cultures across the continent are women. Pitjeng essays Rafiki’s signature blend of mischief and wisdom accumulated over the years with a crowd-pleasing performance that is rousing yet subtle when it needs to be.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jonathan Andrew Hume, who has been with the U.K. ensemble since 2001 and who first played Simba in Singapore in 2011, returns as the protagonist. Hume delivers a passionate performance, capturing Simba’s joie de vivre and the conflict that is rooted deep within him. It can be read that all the gleeful pouncing about is merely a façade to conceal the hurt that Simba carries with him from his past. Hume’s soaring delivery of the ballad “Endless Night”, which starts out mournful then turns hopeful, is brilliant.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Noxolo Dlamini delivers an elegant turn as Nala, displaying precision in her lithe physicality and creating beautiful lines of movement. The yearning comes through in her part of the duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and Dlamini’s portrayal of someone rediscovering a long-lost friend is gently affecting.

The roles of Young Simba and Young Nala are shared between three actors each, who joined the cast during the show’s previous stop in Manila. At our performance, Young Simba was played by Julien Joshua Dolor, who is energetic, wide-eyed and loveable. The excitement and wonderment, soon to be dashed, is integral to the portrayal of Young Simba. Alas, Uma Naomi Martin, while also adorable, is noticeably stiffer as Young Nala. We don’t take joy in criticising child actors, but Dolor comes off more naturally than Martin does.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile’s Mufasa is one of the highlights of the cast. Khanyile projects the dignity of a king and the warmth of a father, a father who desperately wants to prepare his son for the duties of leading the Pridelands but is unaware of just how little time he has left. Khanyile’s delivery of “He Lives in You” is heartfelt, and his delivery of the message Mufasa’s ghost has for Simba, coupled with the stunning presentation of that scene, is awe-inspiring.

Photo by Joan Marcus © Disney

Scar is one of those villain roles that affords actors the chance to ravenously chomp the scenery, which Antony Lawrence happily partakes in. He stalks across the stage, sneers and turns the campiness up to eleven. Scar’s articulated mask enhances Lawrence’s snarling expressions. Lawrence’s Scar could stand to be a touch more menacing, but it’s an enjoyable performance all the same.

Photo by Jedd Jong

André Jewson handily (wingily?) steals the show as Zazu, the fussbudget majordomo and loyal aide to Mufasa. He accurately captures the worrywart hornbill’s vocal inflections and does remarkable physical work, influenced by mime and clown traditions. As a comedic character, Zazu chips away at the fourth wall with his beak, making Singapore-specific references and winks at pop culture. Such jokes were greeted with uproarious laughter, but they can pull one out of it a little, and momentarily make this transcendent work of art feel like a show at a theme park.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Timon and Pumbaa are to Simba what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet. Kids are bound to love the double act. Jamie McGregor’s neurotic Timon is the ideal counterpoint to Pierre van Heerden’s easier-going, notoriously flatulent Pumbaa. The contrast in the physicality, like Laurel and Hardy or C-3PO and R2-D2 before them, is integral to the humour derived from seeing the pair onstage.

Vuyelwa Tshona, Liso Gcwabe and Mark Tatham portray Scar’s henchmen, the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed respectively. While their performances cannot be faulted, the hyena costumes are this reviewer’s least favourite. There’s a distracting gap between the head and the body, they seem kind of floppy and just don’t have the same efficiency in the design as some of the other costumes/puppets in the show. The hyenas’ number “Chow Down”, completed with electric guitar riffs, is the most incongruous in the show.

Photo by Deen van Meer © Disney

The Lion King is a show with so many moving parts, a show that’s so technical, and yet its overflowing with resonant emotion and never feels like an impersonal assemblage of sets, props and costumes. The show packs in jaw-dropping spectacle, but never loses sight of the themes of facing one’s past and the father-son relationship at the heart of the story. 21 years after its Broadway premiere, The Lion King is still a crowning achievement of stagecraft and still has the power to move audiences to tears.

Jedd Jong