Yes! Get Pumped for “Kinky Boots” at the Bushnell

“Kinky Boots” is playing at the Bushnell through June 28, 2015. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Yes! Men, women and people still deciding, put on your kinky boots and strut to The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford. Or just strut to the theater in the footwear of your choosing to see “Kinky Boots” because girls and men (and people still deciding) just wanna have fun in this glamourous, dynamic pop musical.

“Kinky Boots” features music by composer and lyricist Cyndi Lauper (you may have heard of her) and a book written by playwright Harvey Fierstein, best known for his acting role as Frank in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and also the writer of “Newsies” and “La Cage aux Folles” (which he also performed in).

It’s a true “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” story. Charlie (Steven Booth) probably felt like he had to walk a mile in someone else’s kinky boots (and it didn’t look easy when he did!) by the end of the show. He reluctantly inherits his father’s family men’s shoes factory, Price & Son, when he dies and is about to give it up when his employee, Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) challenges him to change the product to meet popular demand instead of closing up shop and putting people out of work. After meeting drag queen Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker), born as Simon, who often has to throw out her cheap high-heeled boots because they break quickly, Charlie finds his niche market and transforms his factory into a business that still makes men’s shoes, but turns an unconventional, unique product — high-heeled boots for men who dress like woman to perform in drag shows.

It’s a story about acceptance of other people for who they are, as Don (Joe Coots) learns following a boxing match with a professionally trained Lola in a battle between them about what defines a real man. But it’s also a story about accepting yourself for who you are no matter what anyone else thinks. Lola is the most herself dressed as a woman and dressing like a man in conformity to society just represses and subdues her.

“Kinky Boots” is playing at the Bushnell through June 28, 2015. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

I thoroughly enjoyed Coots’s pre-show sketch discouraging cell phone use in character as Don.

Kyle Taylor Parker is stunning as Lola. A sparkling white gown with a trailing silk cape and a form-fitting glittery red stringy dress are just two of the outfits that put his character’s stamp on fashion and glitz that dazzle the eye. Not only does he project the most manly feminine powerhouse diva vocals you’ll hear, but man can he and all of the other men playing drag queens dance in this show! And in such high heels! They have the grace, poise and flexibility of your typical female dancers with finesse and athleticism of men to give the dances power, spunk and attitude. I’d like to take a lesson or two from them in how to walk in shoes like that. Not your average low-heeled dance shoe! Did I mention Parker was in the Original Broadway Company of “Kinky Boots” on Broadway? It’s such a treat to see an original cast member in a touring show because that doesn’t happen every day!

The first act closes with a dynamic dance number that puts you into intermission on a positive note. It was refreshing given a lot of shows end Act One with a problem.

There’s a reason Booth must have been cast alongside Parker. He’s a rock star! He’s got the power to match the force in Parker’s voice, making for both great dueling vocals and beautiful harmonies. I would go see him front and center at a rock concert. His voice really carries through the rafters and his enthusiasm makes you love him as Charlie.

My only critique with his character was that when Charlie feels pressure to get the Kinky Boots on the runway in Milan to save his father’s shoe factory, he turns too quickly on Lola and shoes a prejudice and embarrassment toward her flamboyant qualities and drag wardrobe. Charlie seems too nice and accepting throughout the play to suddenly be so cruel and judgmental, but then again he’s just discovering being driven to accomplish something so maybe it gets the better of him and he says things he doesn’t really believe. I’m not sure this is Booth’s fault because it’s also how the plot is written in the script, but I guess I didn’t believe that side of the character in the way I read him.

Chambers made an adorable pairing with Charlie as the girl who falls for her friend who is engaged. She really excels in “The History of the Wrong Guy,” when she really thrusts comedy into her emotional, self-realizing song about her love for Charlie. She has a phenomenal voice that she knows how to manipulate for comedic effect when necessary.

I’m glad she got the guy in the end and not Charlie’s materialistic, money-driven fiancée Nicola (Grace Stockdale), who barely appears in the story and you often forget she’s in the picture. But when Stockdale is on stage, she is ever present and puts strong energy and character into the role. Her scene that said everything to me was when Charlie sees her wearing the sparkling red expensive heels that she always asked him for and he never bought her, it explains everything without her even saying it. If the shoe fits.

Actually, in a lot of ways, the shoes tell a big part of the story. They say who someone is and where they come from, as well as symbolize where they’re going and when they’re worn down from their journey. The boots are the heart of the show. Major props to costumer Gregg Barnes.

The show dragged at times in the monologuing slow ballads and was the most dynamic in the drag dance numbers, particularly the impressive one involving the shoe conveyer belts. Acoustics is an ongoing issue in the Bushnell space in terms being able to hear the lyrics clearly over the music. The sound carries fine and the show was beautiful musically, but especially from the mezzanine, I couldn’t understand some of the actors’ lines and words in the songs, particularly with the added challenge of the actors speaking in British accents. That didn’t take away from my enjoyment and the story was pretty easy to follow.

The ensemble made the world of Price & Son lively. I wish the story went outside the shoe store more, showing the public’s reaction to the kinky boots, but not sure if that’s a staging issue because of the way the book is written.

The children playing Young Charlie (Anthony Picarello) and Young Lola (Horace V. Rogers) were incredible and held their own in a production that’s mostly adults. It took me a little while to realize who the second boy was, but reflecting back, it makes sense and gives you the backstory on Lola’s relationship with her father, who wants her to be something she’s not. It sets up her performance for him in drag at the nursing home later on.

Wethersfield native Maggie McDowell was also in the cast on her tour debut as a swing actress.

Walking away from the show (after dancing during the standing ovation), I will remember the dance numbers and costumes the most. And the boots (one of the actor even used a kinky boot to hold the corner of the boxing ring!). Where can us ladies get some of those?

As Charlie would say, for me it was one big, “yyyyyeeeeeeessss!”

“Kinky Boots” is playing at the Bushnell through June 28, 2015. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

You still have until June 28 to see “Kinky Boots.” Jerry Mitchell directed and choreographed the production and Stephen Oremus was the music supervisor/arranger. Adam Souza conducted the impressive pop orchestra and Ryan Fielding Garrett was associate conductor.

The show was sold out on press night Tuesday, so get your tickets soon.

Note on Friday that there will be a lot of traffic in Hartford due to the Fall Out Boy and Wiz Khalifa show at Xfinity Theatre, so allow for some extra time. For more information on the show and purchasing tickets, you can visit bushnell.org/kinkyboots.

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“American Idiot” Rocks the Warner

Green Day’s “American Idiot” isn’t just a show. It’s an experience. Co-director/choreographer/producer Sharon Wilcox said it best.

This is not your average musical. Get ready for a night of head-banging rage and love fun in this post-9/11 punk rock opera by the Warner Theatre Stage Company.

The rights just became available for the Broadway show and the Warner is the first theater group in Connecticut to put on this production.

Don’t expect something pretty, expect something gritty. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, that’s all in there, as well as a lot of profanity and F-bombs.

The storyline is a bit challenging to follow because this isn’t your typical show with a linear plot. There’s no dialogue and the song lyrics are sometimes hard to hear as the band overpowers a lot of the solos. I wish I listened to the album before so I already knew the words. The only spoken words are monologues by the main character, Johnny (Christopher Franci) that give the show a semblance of a narrative. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story.

It follows the lives of Johnny and his two friends struggling to find meaning the year after 9/11. The three are itching to get out of their hometown. Johnny moves to the city and grows lonely. His dark side, personified in his alter ego St. Jimmy (Tony Leone), takes over and he becomes a hard core drug abuser and falls in love or lust with sexy Whatsername next door, played by Lynn D’Ambrosi. Will (Scott Murphy) stays home to be with a girl named Heather (Katie Brunetto) and gets her pregnant, living out a downward-spiraling relationship. Tunny (Stephen Lenczewski) goes off to fight in Afghanistan, gets injured and meets Extraordinary Girl (Lauren Jacob).

You almost have to think of it like a CD. It’s a compilation show featuring songs from Green Day’s “American Idiot” album. When you listen to a CD, each song can stand alone. Sometimes you listen to them out of order. But when pieced together, they all add layers to the meaning in the entire album. If you come to “American Idiot” to understand it, you might leave baffled about what just happened. Take it scene by scene as vignettes and focus on how it makes you feel and what significance it has for you rather than trying to make sense out of it. It’s not meant to have one answer or one way of experiencing it because that’s life. It’s complex.

It’s the ultimate sensory overload. There’s a lot to take in all at once.

You may be showered in magazine clippings at one point.

You’ll literally feel the music, with subwoofers from the main stage under your seats to enhance the sound of a hidden but already powerful rock band. The orchestra is made up of music director Meric Martin and Mark Wilcox on guitar, Aaron J. Bunel on keyboard, Paul Bilodeau on bass, Joe Pitassi on drums, Julie Hassler on cello, Katie Gomes and Connie Perna playing violin and Jackie Tyson on viola.  The strings are on one side of the stage and the rock instruments are on the other, so the band fills the room. It was recommended to me that I bring ear plugs in case the volume was too loud and while the sound certainly fills the small studio space, it didn’t bother me. But others wore them, so if you’re sensitive to too much noise, bring them to mute the sound level.

Then there’s the lighting by designer Jameson H. Wiley with over 800 light cues. More than 30 TVs stacked on the set run throughout the show. Some are static, but most show video footage, from 2001 broadcast news and talk show clips to footage of the production shot by co-director Katherine Ray and edited by her partner in crime, Sharon Wilcox.

You almost won’t recognize the Warner’s Nancy Marine Studio Theatre. The multi-platformed open set with a floor-level stage invites the audience into the underbelly of a disillusioned, lost America grasping for purpose and living in the moment. The actors casually get into place with the lights up as people still filter in, so that is a little confusing because it’s not what the audience is used to, but it’s very modern and rips away the curtain and the proverbial fourth wall. It gets you in the world before the show starts.

And that’s just the production elements.

From the moment the show opens with a dynamic “American Idiot” number featuring multiple solos by leads and ensemble and rugged punk rock dancing, perhaps the most powerful song in the show, the energy level of the actors never drops. Before every rehearsal, they underwent a fitness regimen of exercises and mile-long runs to get them through the hour-and-a-half show without intermission. And it showed. Yes, a couple of shirtless men on stage had six packs. But mostly, it showed in the endurance this production required with constant dance numbers, some of the most impressive dancing I’ve ever seen at the Warner, choreographed by Sharon Wilcox. I felt like I was getting a workout just watching the show.

The show doesn’t just rely on verbal storytelling, it’s very visual. So I actually followed the story best by paying attention to the acting, dance and video elements that paired with the music to help me fish out the symbolism. Being an English major trained in literary analysis and storytelling also helped. If you are artsy and can appreciate the abstract, this is the show for you.

I read the story through the emotions of the actors and the mood of the music. A lot of the show isn’t just what the characters before you are going through. It’s how it makes you feel as an individual as the music gives you your own groove as a spectator. Some audience members were even dancing in their seats. I once saw a similar type of show, “We Will Rock You,” a rock musical produced by the surviving members of Queen based on all their music and the audience actually got up and danced like they were at a rock concert. Opening night, the sold-out crowd at “American Idiot” didn’t get quite there, but maybe it’s because we didn’t know we were allowed to and were processing it all. But, save the risk of blocking the person sitting behind you, I think it would be appropriate because there is a rock concert vibe to this production. This show is anything but conventional and it would be fun for that to happen.

The 21 guns of this show, an ensemble scripted to be that number, are very strong, each building their own character and putting their all into every expression and movement. Their heart and passion for this show shines through.

D’Ambrosi, flaming red hair and all, sings the song by that name very beautifully and has a lot of power in her voice necessary for an edgy rock show. She stood out the most vocally and you can tell she really committed to the role, completely infused with passion and embodying her character. She’s very brave too, jumping from a platform into the arms of the crowd with no hesitation. Brunetto and Jacob join her for a wonderfully harmonized trio. It’s a song that bring’s delicacy to the rugged, head-banging music of the rest of the show.

Jacob also puts on an impressive exotic dance for Tunny in “Extraordinary Girl” and her voice has a strong, clear tone quality of pop and rock proportions.

Franci, Lenczewski and Murphy sound the best when they’re harmonizing together, and they even have guitars on stage, though it was hard to tell who was actually playing. I think I heard some strumming from Murphy, but I was on his side of the stage. Full-out guitar playing in the lead roles could have added more musical intrigue to the production because you don’t often see actors playing live on stage, but there’s a lot going on and the band certainly isn’t lacking in instrumentation.

Even though St. Jimmy isn’t real and his introduction into the story is abrupt, Leone makes that character very present. You won’t recognize him on stage, partially because of the studded collar, black nail polish, heavy eyeliner and tattoos. His vocal prowess was impressive and he was able to cut through the band so you could understand him. The energy he puts into the dance, jumps, kicks and all, depicts the enraged, combative nature of his character’s antagonistic role.

Noel Roberge, Ruben Soto, Jesse T. Hunter and Rodney K. held their own in featured solos. Rick Mantell, Erica Blasko, Michaelle Funaro, Morgan Grambo, Jenna Morin, Rachel Newman, Rachel Perlin, Breanna Riollano and Beverly Rodenberg completed the ensemble and did not go unnoticed.

There were some pitchy moments in some of the solos in general, but given how out of breath the actors must have been from all of the dancing and the strength of the music backing them, it’s amazing they accomplished as much as they did with their voices. Actually the most powerful songs in the show come from the body the ensemble adds to the sound backing the solos. Every person is important in this production.

Wilcox said it was a true team effort and it really shows.

Production stage manager Taryn Glasser, sound designer Chris LaPlante, costume designer Renee Purdy, assistant costume designer Jessica Camarero, fight choreographer Rob Richnavsky, master carpenters Steve Houk, Kevin Hales, set builders Wes Baldwin, Terry Breen and John Quin, lighting crew Liz Glasser, Mike Griffin and Christian Johnson, follow spot operator Jodi Baldwin, set painters Karla Woodworth and Lana Peck, archival videographer Jeffrey B. Schlichter and promotional photographer Luke Haughwout rounded out the production team. Willey also designed the set and Woodworth handled the props. Wes Baldwin also helped with follow spot operation and sign language choreography, along with Jodi Baldwin. Glasser, Sharon Wilcox, LaPlante and Riolanno assisted with lighting. Ray did video design and is credited with the execution of the video in the show, along with Liz Glasser, Sharon Wilcox and Randale Nunley.

The show initially seems to resolve with Johnny telling us he met the girl of his dreams and has a job (and he’s finally taking showers), but then there’s another song with a flashback to him wondering about Whatsername that makes it open-ended. It could have ended with the previous song to bring closure to the show, but then again there’s always the life the characters live after the story that we never get to see in a book or movie without a sequel. Actually, that’s life. You think you get what you want and then there’s always more and perhaps some unresolved stories. You keep living.

The cast ended the show with a song that’s not on the album, a throwback favorite, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” All the guitarists in the cast were out for a nice acoustic rendition of the old Green Day favorite almost all the actors had a solo moment. They had me singing along. I had the time of my life and I hope you do too. It’s a thrill.

There’s a matinee today at 2 p.m., followed by another weekend of shows, next Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 18-20) at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 21 at 2 p.m. The Warner Theatre is located at 68 Main Street in Torrington. Go to www.warnertheatre.org/upcoming-events/americanidiot for more information on the show and to buy tickets.