Review: Wayne Brady sashays to the rescue in 'Kinky Boots' at the Hollywood Bowl

·4 min read

“Kinky Boots” was going about its business Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl when a meteor hit the stage and set the musical on fire.

This planetary body goes by the name of Wayne Brady, who reprised his Broadway performance at the Bowl this weekend as Lola in Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-winning musical.

The show, which is set in a shoe factory in Northampton, England, isn’t ideally suited for outdoor presentation. David Rockwell's assembly line set seems lost on the vast stage, and the provincial British milieu dissipates in the SoCal evening air.

Jerry Mitchell, who directed the original Broadway production and won a Tony for his choreography, mounted the weekend show strategically for the giant video monitors. There was little point in looking straight ahead at the stage even for those with premium seats. In fact, the production struck me as a tryout for a future NBC live musical broadcast.

Jake Shears, frontman of the Scissor Sisters, was acquitting himself amiably as Charlie, the shoe factory owner's son, who unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the business after his father dies. But the musical nonetheless had a lackluster feeling in the early going.

Based on the Miramax film, “Kinky Boots” has a lot of backstory to plod through before Lola turns up with the charge of a theatrical defibrillator. Lauper won a Tony for her score, but the numbers at the start of the show didn't seize hold of the audience in the forceful way that’s required in a picnicking environment.

Brady, glamorously kitted out like a cabaret Wonder Woman, rides to the rescue of the production much like Lola saves the day for Charlie, who has already decided to close the failing shoe factory when a chance encounter with this drag queen sparks an ingenious business idea: Why not manufacture footwear for men who dress as women?

Lola, brought on board as a shoe designer, transforms not only the company but the sexual politics of an entire community. Fierstein drives these lessons home in a book that continues his campaign of broadening theatergoers’ perspectives on gender expression and sexual identity.

In his recent memoir, “I Was Better Last Night,” Fierstein pays homage to Brady's Broadway turn as Lola.

“Although I adored Billy Porter’s portrayal of Lola in ‘Kinky Boots,’ and we never could have developed the show without his singular talent and showmanship, it wasn’t until Wayne Brady took over the role that audiences finally listened to the character say that he preferred women and accepted him as a cross-dressing heterosexual.”

What arrested my attention was Brady’s star quality. He was as comfortable in Lola's wardrobe as he was in the character's skin. And his singing had the assurance of one of the great R&B powerhouses of yesteryear. He endowed Lola's Act II solo number, “Hold Me in Your Heart," with a touch of Dionne Warwick enchantment. (Musical director and conductor Stephen Oremus drew out just enough ebullience from the orchestra.)

The most beautiful song in Lauper’s score, “Not My Father’s Son,” is shared by Lola and Charlie, who discover that they have more in common than is visible on the surface. Bringing home the emotional truth of this number, Brady and Shears extended the show’s vision to everyone seeking to be true to their own individuality despite differing parental expectations.

Two other performers deserve singling out for their excellent work in this Bowl presentation. Kelly Marie Tran, who played Lauren, the factory worker who becomes the right romantic match for Charlie, delivers a delightfully neurotic version of “The History of Wrong Guys.” And Daniel Stewart Sherman was perfectly cast in the foolproof role of Don, the big, small-minded lug at the factory whose consciousness is raised by Lola’s willingness to empathize even with him.

Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony for her lead performance in “Hairspray,” was in the cast but unfortunately didn’t have all that much to do. A gaggle of fetching drag queens provided delicious backup for Lola. (Hats off to costume designer Gregg Barnes for enlivening the dreary factory locale with sparkle and glitz.)

Brady is better known as a television personality but his performance in “Kinky Boots” revealed a treasure trove of musical comedy talent. Quick, someone write him a star role in an original show. Any gender will do.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.