Stark Sands and Billy Porter in

The new musical "Kinky Boots," running in Chicago prior to a March launch on Broadway, has a lot going for it. There's a spirited charm; a broad message of acceptance; a surprisingly effective, unsurprisingly bouncy score from Cyndi Lauper in her first stage effort; a lovable performance from Billy Porter as a drag performer-cum-shoe designer; and a first act that book writer Harvey Fierstein makes marvelously smooth. It also has a second act that currently just manages to keep its heels kicking while its plot becomes unglued.

The new musical “Kinky Boots,” running in Chicago prior to a March launch on Broadway, has a lot going for it. There’s a spirited charm; a broad message of acceptance; a surprisingly effective, unsurprisingly bouncy score from Cyndi Lauper in her first stage effort; a lovable performance from Billy Porter as a drag performer-cum-shoe designer; and a first act that book writer Harvey Fierstein makes marvelously smooth. It also has a second act that currently just manages to keep its heels kicking while its plot becomes unglued.

Based on a true story as filtered through a relatively obscure 2005 film, show tells the tale of a staid family shoe factory in Northampton saved from closure by embracing the niche market for high-heeled boots for the transgendered. The high-concept premise begins with Charlie Price (Stark Sands) confronting the death of his father, the discovery that the family business is near bankruptcy and the unhappy responsibility of laying off workers he’s known most of his life. A meet-cute sequence lands him in the London dressing room of drag performer Lola (Billy Porter), whose complaints about the flimsiness of her footwear spark the idea for transforming the factory from producing wing-tip Oxfords to making flashy “kinky boots.”

Following the setup, which Fierstein manages with laudable efficiency, the best part of the show lets loose. Lola arrives in Northhampton and, in the number “Sex Is in the Heel,” delivers a song that will forever become a shoe fetish anthem and which Lauper has already remixed for mainstream play.

That high point is followed by more songs that demonstrate Lauper as a quick theatrical study, able to create songs that express character and emotion appropriate to specific dramatic moments while retaining her own pop sound. Factory worker Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford, happily channeling Lauper’s quirkiness a bit) warns herself against falling for the engaged Charlie with “The History of Wrong Guys,” and Lola and Charlie explain their troubled relationships with their fathers in the heartfelt (if a bit treacly) “I’m Not My Father’s Son.”

And for the energetically upbeat act-one closer “Everybody Say Yeah,” director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell puts conveyor belts to fun choreographic use.

But if the first act sets up strong relationships and provides a clean crescendo, the second one fails to develop them and flails. The drive toward creating the boots in time to present in Milan feels perfunctory. Fierstein expands a dimension of the film involving factory worker Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who sheds his prejudice and learns to accept others for what they are. The character arc is strong and crowd-pleasing, but the storyline contorts unnecessarily to make it happen and the narrative never gets back on track.

In the meantime, the romance and the main bromance get lost. Lauren sings about falling for Charlie, and his materialistic fiancee Nicola (Celina Carvajal) conveniently sings “So Long, Charlie” to make him available. But then… nothing, really.

Charlie’s relationship with Lola deteriorates as his prejudices and self-involvement get exposed, but it’s all very muddy. Charlie, a cipher in the movie, becomes indecipherably complicated here, and baby-faced, golden-voiced Sands brings a constant innocent likeability to a character we need to disapprove of for a bit.

Charlie may have the first act song “I Come to the Rescue,” but it’s pretty much always Porter’s Lola and the back-up drag queens, helped by Gregg Barnes’ costumes, who really do. Porter is quite remarkable, simultaneously strong and vulnerable emotionally, delivering Fierstein’s clever one-liners with ideal timing and pumping a fierce energy into Lauper’s songs.

The show has plenty of drag-queen antecedents, from “La Cage” to “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” But what it most resembles at the moment is Mitchell’s 2000 choreographic outing “The Full Monty,” another medium-scale musical adaptation of a small English indie about working-class folks. “Kinky Boots” has the advantage of career-changing work by Lauper and Porter, but like its predecessor it’s a show with spunk and heart that could still use some more of both as it develops.

Kinky Boots

Bank of America Theater; 1,900 seats; $97 top

Production

A Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig, Nederlander Presentations, Terry Allen Kramer, Independent Presenters Network, Yasuhiro Kawana, Jane Bergere, Ron Fierstein and Dorsey Regal, Allan S. Gordon and Adam S. Gordon, Jayne Baron Sherman, Jim Kierstead and Gregory Ray, Adam Blanshay and Warren Trepp presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, book by Harvey Fierstein, based on the Miramax motion picture written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus.

Creative

Set, David Rockwell; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, John Shivers; hair, Josh Marquette; makeup, Randy Houston Mercer; music director, Brian Usifer; production stage manager, Lois L. Griffing. Opened Oct. 17, reviewed Oct. 20, 2012; runs through Nov. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MINS.

Cast

Charlie Price - Stark Sands
Lola - Billy Porter
Nicola - Celina Carvajal
Lauren - Annaleigh Ashford
Don - Daniel Stewart Sherman
George - Marcus Neville
With: Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton, Joey Taranto, Andy Kelso, Tory Ross, Jennifer Perry, Josh Caggiano, Marquise Neal, Adinah Alexander, Eric Anderson, Eugene Barry-Hill, Stephen Berger, Caroline Bowman, Sandra DeNise, Eric Leviton, Ellyn Marie Marsh, John Jeffrey Martin, Nathan Peck, Robert Pendilla, Lucia Spina. Musical Numbers: "Price & Son Theme;" "The Most Beautiful Thing;" "Take What You Got;" "The Land of Lola;" "Beware the Black Widow;" "I Come to the Rescue;" "Sex Is in the Heel;" "The History of Wrong Guys;" "I'm Not My Father's Son;" "Everybody Say Yeah;" "Price & Son Theme (reprise);" "What a Woman Wants;" "In This Corner;" "So Long, Charlie;" "The Soul of a Man;" "Hold Me In Your Heart;" "Raise You Up/Just Be."

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more