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Dancing elevates ‘Kinky Boots’ from clunker to crowd-pleaser

There’s nothing like a drag queen-driven dance number to redeem an otherwise tepid production.

And there are a couple of extraordinary ones in “Kinky Boots,” the high-octane collaboration between Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper that blew through Shea’s Performing Arts Center Tuesday night like a blinding storm of sequins and sass.

The star of the show was not any individual cast member, though lead actors Steven Booth, J. Harrison Ghee and the entire ensemble were uniformly excellent. It wasn’t Fierstein’s book. And it certainly wasn’t Lauper’s tentative first crack at a Broadway score.

What upgraded the show from a clunky attempt to introduce Middle America to transvestite and drag queen culture was director Jerry Mitchell’s clever, occasionally kitschy and above all joyous choreography. Mitchell’s work was exactly the 6-inch stiletto this show needed to look its best.

The popular musical, still doing big business on Broadway since it opened there in 2013, was adapted from the independent British film of the same name about a struggling shoe factory whose owner’s last-ditch effort to save the company involves selling durable kinky boots to drag queens. The idea strikes that owner (Booth) after a chance meeting with Lola (Ghee), a cross-dressing Londoner from a similar working-class background whose larger-than-life personality transforms not only the factory, but the small-town culture of its workers.

It is in many ways a lovely narrative about the challenges of living up to someone else’s dreams and about the fear and ignorance that lies at the root of prejudice and discrimination. It’s also a smart piece of marketing in itself, which recognizes that the gains of the LGBT rights movement have quickly turned drag queens into progressive symbols with plenty of profit potential. One expertly choreographed scene, in which drag queens literally roll out on the factory’s production line, is a smart and sly metaphor for that realization.

Aside from Mitchell’s choreography and the show’s progressive subject matter, there’s little to distinguish “Kinky Boots” from any of the recent screen-to-stage adaptations Broadway producers have been churning out. Fierstein’s uncharacteristically creaky book is slow to get the narrative moving, and once it does it never seems to tell the story without apparent effort or leaden dialogue.

While subtlety and nuance run through the choreography, they are absent from much of Lauper’s score. To her great credit, it does feature one lovely ballad (“Not My Father’s Son”), one great comic song (“The History of Wrong Guys”) performed with aplomb by Lindsay Nicole Chambers and one irresistible dance anthem (“Raise You Up”), but otherwise veers uncomfortably into imitation mode. “Take What You Got,” performed “Once”-style in a London bar, is like a Maroon 5 B-side orchestrated for Broadway. “Soul of a Man,” a searching ballad performed by Booth, is beyond saccharine.

Even so, Mitchell’s smart direction and keen eye keeps the show well afloat. This ranges from his introduction of Lola in a suave, savvy number that fuses the messiness of late-night drag acts with the confident swagger of Beyoncé to his infectious work on the final number, which sends the audience into one of the loudest bouts of applause I’ve heard in Shea’s.

After a number like that, and with the message this show is preaching to its large and lucrative choir, it’s nearly impossible not to walk out with a smile on your face.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

REVIEW

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What: “Kinky Boots”

Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

When: Through Sunday

Tickets: $39 to $87.50

Info: 847-0850 or sheas.org.

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