Heels and feels

Kinky Boots (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre 

September 4 – 26

“It feels contagious” is probably not the most popular of phrases these days, even in its appearance in electric disco anthem ‘Sex is in the Heel’ in which the characters of “Kinky Boots” are being asked to embrace the funked-up ostentation of its titular footwear. It is, however, a most apt way of encapsulating experience of Phoenix Ensemble’s production of the hit musical, which captures its joy in a balance of show-stopping numbers, sassy humour and contemplative emotion alike. With Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics, along with its hilarious, uplifting book by Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein, the show delivers a strong message of acceptance, which the company delivers without moralising, making for a good time for all. Indeed, the on-stage energy of a cast finally able to perform again is infectious, ensuing that audience members leave the theatre abuzz above and beyond that of a usual opening night.

Based on the 2005 film, in turn drawing loosely on real events, the popular 2013 musical tells the uplifting story of Charlie Price (Alexander Thanasoulis), the fourth generation son in Northampton’s Price and Son shoemaking business, who reluctantly inherits the company, only to discover its financial difficulties. While in London with his obnoxious fiancée, Nicola (Carly Wilson), Charlie encounters Simon, in drag as the flamboyantly fabulous drag queen Lola (Joshua Brandon). The fabulous entertainer who is in need of some sturdier stilettos, becomes Charlie’s inspiration to not only turn around the business, but live up to his father’s legacy. As they work together, the unlikely pair find that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible, soon discovering that, when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.

Phoenix Ensemble shows never disappoint and “Kinky Boots” is certainly up there with the best, thanks to possibly the strongest principal cast the company has ever assembled. Joshua Brandon has some massive shoes to fill as the larger-than-life cabaret performer and drag queen Lola, given the dynamism with which the Tony Award-winning Billy Porter originated the role on Broadway and how Helpman Award-winning Callum Francis embodied it in its UK and Australian tours. And Brandon fills them with expertise, seemingly effortlessly showing audiences how sometimes the best way to fit in is to stand out. As sassy and showy as the character is, however, it is a role that inspires love and acceptance, celebrated in the show’s inspirational ‘Raise You Up’ with lyrics like, ‘Just be who you wanna be.’ In justice to this, Brandon captures Lola’s confident charisma, while also delivering upon the more intimate moments that show Simon’s emotion and integrity, such as in the thoughtful Lola and Charlie duet, ‘Not My Father’s Son’, which outlines their shared tormented feelings towards their fathers and also showcases the clear chemistry between the two leads.

“Kinky Boots” brings with it a heavy musical load for its leads and while the production is enriched by its all-around committed cast (especially the troupe of Lola’s Angels), there are two pivotal roles on which its success rests; Lola and Charlie. Like with Brandon’s Lola, Alexander Thanasoulis inhabits the complex role of the deceptively-unassuming Charlie, bringing to it the insecurity and sensitivity needed to ensure audience engagement with the heart-warming aspects of the narrative. And his vocals are excellent throughout. In particular, Act Two’s ‘Soul of a Man’, in which he struggles with the burden of his father’s legacy, is forlorn without being self-pitiful and particularly poignant on Father’s Day weekend.

Also of particular note is Lauren Ryan, who is delightful as dorky audience favourite Lauren, the supportive factory worker who just happens to be infatuated with Charlie. Her comic timing, especially in combination with the choreography in ‘The History of Wrong Guys’ makes for one of her many memorable appearances on-stage.

Under Sherryl-Lee Secomb and Shane Webb’s direction, all elements combine in an impressive production. Desney Toia-Sinapati and Amy-Rose Swindells’s choreography is effective in big, company numbers like Act One’s closer, ‘Everybody Say Yeah’, crescendoing in Act Two’s boxing scene where the factory’s homophonic foreman Don (Tristan Ham) challenges Lola to fight him in a boxing match at the pub, one of the best choreographed numbers seen in ‘the tin shed’ of the Beenleigh Ensemble’s Pavilion Theatre home. Justin Tubb-Hearne’s costumes are flashy and fun, while his set design works smoothly throughout.

While the music of “Kinky Boots” is catchy (Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne), it generally doesn’t help the storytelling in that typical musical way. But the escapism that the show provides at a time when we need it more than ever, means that this is of little concern. Similarly, it features some perhaps-problematic tropes and dialogue mentions. Still, the overwhelming feel-good atmosphere makes for a joyous night out, especially in delight of seeing others experience the musical for the first time. And, all things considered, it is easy to understand why the season of shows is already sold out.

Photos c/o – CF Photography Families