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Theater review: RBTL presents "Kinky Boots" 

Arriving in Rochester amid a storm of glitter, sequins, and throbbing bass, the crowd-pleasing musical "Kinky Boots" will be on stage at the Auditorium Center through Sunday, May 17. Marrying joyous, high energy production numbers with a heartfelt story about acceptance and staying true to oneself, the show is adapted by Harvey Fierstein from the 2005 independent British film of the same name, and features a catchy pop score from Cyndi Lauper. The spirited result was ecstatically received by the audience at Tuesday's opening night performance.

Like the film, the musical's plot revolves around the Price & Son shoe factory in the small working class town of Northampton, England. Though the company's owner, Mr. Price, holds out hope that his son, Charlie (Steven Booth), will take over the family business, the younger Price has no interest, instead moving to London to start a career in real estate. But when his father unexpectedly passes away, the business is left in Charlie's reluctant hands. He quickly learns the company is nearing bankruptcy; with the entire industry coming on hard times, Price & Son faces closure unless Charlie can come up with a new business plan to turn things around.

While in London, he makes the acquaintance of Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), a sassy, take-no-prisoners drag queen, after he intervenes when he sees Lola getting harassed by some drunk nogoodniks. Spending some time with Lola, he realizes that Lola holds the key to the company's future: drag queens know the value of a quality shoe, and they're an underserved niche market. After all, there aren't many women's shoes that are built to support the weight of a full-grown man. And so Price & Son shifts gears, transitioning from practical men's shoes to the world of high fashion, retooling the factory to produce high-heeled "kinky" boots. Charlie brings Lola on as a consultant after she offers some helpful guidance, reminding the designers that "The Sex is in the Heel." With Lola now a member of the factory team, some of the male workers have some difficulty accepting a man in a frock, but gradually everybody grows and learns valuable life lessons from one another.

Charlie also has a self-involved fiancé, Nicola, who is busy planning their wedding and eager for Charlie to be rid of the factory. Her relative absence and status-conscious personality leaves no question as to where that plotline is headed. Though well-performed by Grace Stockdale, it's the definition of a thankless role. While Fierstein was tinkering with the book, it would have been nice if he'd found something better to do with the character. But Nicola's increasing distance opens the door for the attentions of the awkwardly charming Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), a worker on the production line who's promoted to an executive at the company. Chambers gets a great showcase with the comedic number "The History of Wrong Guys," as she realizes she just might be developing a crush on the unavailable Charlie.

A phenomenal singer, J. Harrison Ghee delivers a fantastic performance, capably filling the stilettos of Billy Porter's award-winning performance. Lola gets fabulous backup from her Angels, a sextet of high-kicking drag queens (including Rochester native Ricky Schroeder). Booth is also excellent, bringing charm and likeability to a role that mostly requires him to play the straight man (in all senses). Some shaky British accents aside, the entire ensemble is outstanding and the singing and dancing (often in high heels) is impressive across the board.

With a pop icon like Lauper penning the songs, it's no surprise to report they're full of catchy hooks, and it's a remarkably assured first-time effort at a Broadway score. David Rockwell's scenic design is strikingly resourceful, creating a set that's called upon to function as a factory, a nightclub, and at one point even a boxing ring. Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell contributes some wonderfully inventive choreography, most notably a nice bit centered around the factory's moving conveyor belts.

The show's first act is admittedly stronger than the second, which gets bogged down in providing emotional resolutions and (over) emphasizing its message of acceptance. Charlie and Lola each get their own ballads one right after the other, and though they're both exceptionally performed, the numbers slow down the musical's considerable momentum. But thankfully, the show rallies with an exuberant finale set on a Milan runway.

With the Auditorium's bass cranked up to Tilt Nightclub levels, the vibe in the theater resembled that of a rowdy dance club. It's perfect for setting the mood, but sacrificed a bit too much in the higher ranges. This lead to an occasionally muddy sound, which meant a few of the lyrics got lost here and there, but it's a minor issue in a show that delivered in nearly every other respect.

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