A sister’s right to shoes

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By Sujata S. Mukhi

Theater Reviews
Sister Act
International Tour 2017
June 29-July 2
The Theatre at Solaire, Solaire
Resort & Casino, 1 Aseana Ave.,
Entertainment City, Parañaque City

Kinky Boots
Atlantis Theatricals
Entertainment Group
June 30-July 23, Fridays, Saturdays,
Sundays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium,
RCBC Plaza,
Ayala Ave. cor. Gil Puyat Ave.,
Makati City

OUR LEAD CHARACTERS are in deep trouble, and it takes very unusual teams to rescue our hapless heroes.

One team is in saintly garb, and the other in scintillating drag.

A couple of characters deal with father-son issues, others deal with the Heavenly Father and His rules.

A congregation is saved by the soul of a black nightclub disco diva named Deloris, while a community is transformed by the sole of a showgirl, or perhaps ladyboy, named Lola.

THE NUNS of The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith

Sounds like the same musical is showing at two different venues, at Solaire and RCBC. Or rather, two musicals with the same theme, different embellishments. Both are based on films: one an American box office smash comedy, and the other a British under-the-radar dramedy.

Sister Act, a touring production brought in by Ovation Productions in partnership with international theater distributors Troika Entertainment and Broadway Entertainment Group, is a joyous celebration of self-expression and sisterhood, with exultant music by Disney stalwart Alan Mencken (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) and hilariously witty lyrics by Glenn Slater (Tangled). Kinky Boots, produced by Atlantis Theatricals Entertainment Group, is a glorious celebration too of the right to choose and the right to shoes (credit to Sex and the City for that catchy turn of phrase!), with music and lyrics by our ’80s icon who liberated girls all over the world who just wanted to have fun, Cyndi Lauper.

Here lies the key difference. The lead of Sister Act didn’t quite have the livewire jolt required by the role. But Kinky Boots had a lead whose grit, grace, and vulnerability made his boot take wing and soar.

Sister Act begins with Deloris van Cartier (Dené Hill trained in opera, and an off-Broadway and tour performer), a worldly nightclub singer ready for the big time. She accidentally witnesses her thug boyfriend Curtis (Brandon Godfrey) and his three accomplices shoot dead a wayward business partner. She runs away and they chase her. She goes to the police to report the crime and recognizes the desk cop Eddie (Will T. Travis), who had a crush on Deloris in school. He helps her by arranging to have her hide in the one place that Curtis and his cohorts would never think to find her — a convent.

Deloris then doffs her kinky boots (yes she actually does have a pair!), gets into a habit, and becomes Sister Mary Clarence. Mother Superior (the full-voiced Rebecca Mason-Wygal) presents Deloris to the congregation. When meeting the young Sister Mary Robert (Sophie Kim) who introduces herself as a postulant, Deloris sympathetically responds, “Well I used to be low on cash myself, but I never turned to that!”

And that marks the start of the disorder at The Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith. Deloris-as-Mary Clarence sweeps in bombastically, wants to accessorize her habit, and listens with growing horror as Mother Superior recites the litany of restrictions while she resides at the convent. She paraphrases Biblical verses (“Let he who is without sin be first to be stoned!”). The favorite scene on film and on stage, where Deloris improves the blessing for the meal, is belly-aching funny, and never gets old. (“Our Father, Howard be thy name!”)

Because of her musical talent, Deloris is assigned by Mother Superior to tune the discordant resident choir into shape. She transforms the choir and gets them to sing rousing praises for the Lord, in pop, disco and bluesy genres. The choir gains popularity as more and more people come to Sunday mass to listen, and donate to the church. The sister act becomes more of a Vegas show as the choir becomes Deloris-like, with less dolor. And the church is saved. And so are the nuns, moved by Deloris’ passion and love for life.

Ms. Hill seemed to be more comfortable as a sister rather than as Deloris. The first act took a while to find its rhythm, with a rather weak and innocuous Mr. Godfrey as the villain. Deloris’ vibrant personality needed to be established right from the get-go, but the frail rendition of the opening number “Take me to Heaven” was precariously about to leave the impression that the production team should have taken more time to find the right Deloris for the touring company. It took a year’s search to find the great Patina Miller who originated the role on West End and Broadway. Ms. Hill was more refined than robust.

But half-way through the first act, the audience warmed up to Ms. Hill, and the energy she whipped up with her singing nuns in “Raise your Voice” was marvelous. And musically, the arrangement of that number, deceptively simple, was terrific.

Truly, the nuns carried this show. Ms. Mason-Wygal brought appropriate disdain-stained gravitas to her Mother Superior, and her pained “Haven’t got a Prayer” was heartfelt. The oddball holy crew — the space cadet pianist, a hardball choirmaster, the eternal optimist, the quiet and timid novice, and a host of other characters in the ensemble — bloomed in confidence from one number to the next. These actors brought the house down as they raised their arms in generous performance, delightful in their fittingly awkward choreography.

Special mention must be made to the fact that an Asian, Sophie Kim, was cast as the timid Sister Mary Robert in this touring production. She truly found her voice in the inspired “The Life I Never Led.” Her Korean-accented English added a most welcome diversity to the cast. In fact, the beauty of Sister Act as a production is that it allows to have on board actors with a wide age range and a variety of body types and ethnicities.

Mr. Slater’s lyrics tease at the sacrilegious with comedy as his shield. The sisters unwittingly poke irreverent fun at the nun’s sense of loyalty to the life of the religious in the innocent “It’s Good to be a Nun.” This is Agnes of God on some happy drug! Curtis’ oafish sidekicks were hilarious as they sang the creepy “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” which essentially is about how to seduce (shudder), no, entice the nuns to let them into the convent as they look for Deloris: “Hey lady in the long black dress, let’s sneak away and go transgress. Hey lady why not take a chance? Come on, proud Mary, meet your missionary of romance!” Eeew. Look it up, it gets worse.

More wayward lyrics are to be found in “When I Find My Baby,” sung by the violent Curtis. It’s a love song devolved into a hunter’s song. Yes folks, just like the true meaning of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Stalker, not love, song.

The production numbers layered on the lamé and sequins on the nuns’ habits gradually, which was a nice touch. A towering Mother Mary figure in full glitter almost stole the show at the finale. The church set and the changing hues created the right air of tranquility, contrasted with Deloris’ reverie as she fantasizes being a disco queen in her reprise of “Fabulous Baby.”

In the end, the audience was on their feet, cheering on these sisters spreading the love around.

But in all honesty, if you have limited time and budget and had to choose one or the other, Kinky Boots would have to be it. You’ll be on your feet too, but you will also carry with you the lasting impression of an actor who dives so deep into his role, embraces it, imbibes it, and presents it to the audience in the most vulnerable way. Nyoy Volante was already a powerhouse in Jersey Boys. But as Lola, the drag queen who saves a shoe factory from closure, he can wither you with a look, evoke sympathy with a gesture, and breathe fire when angered. And never make you feel he did a disservice to the role by stereotyping it.

The show opens at a high “Prince & Son Theme” where we are introduced to a young Charlie Price (Albert Silos) and his father Mr. Price (Rhenwyn Gabalonzo), whose name is proudly etched on the shoe factory sign board. The factory is in the small town of Northampton, England. We also see a young Lola, played with such bombast by the young Teddy Velasco, as he confidently struts the stage in red stilettos, then is hushed into submission as his father shouts at him to remove them and be normal.

At an even more energized “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World,” the factory workers pay a hearty tribute to shoes. The multi-level factory interior is a solid design by Faust Peneyra, with easy visibility at all angles also thanks to lighting designer Adam Honoré. The set is well-used by cast members which adds a dynamism to the movement, with enlivening choreography by Cecile Martinez.

We now see Charlie has grown, played by the attractively bland Laurence Mossman. His father has passed on and has left him the factory that has gone bankrupt. His London-based fiancée Nicola (the rather insincerely played Tricia Canilao) encourages him to sell the building to a property developer. But something tugs at him to delay the process and not close the business, as he feels that it would not be what his late father would have wanted.

LOLA and the Angels in Kinky Boots

One evening in London, Charlie sees a person being attacked by two hoodlums. He chases them away and is injured in the process. The person turns out to be Lola, a performer in drag, formerly known as Simon. Charlie is inspired when he sees that Lola’s heels are not sturdy enough to hold a man’s weight, and develops the idea of providing an “underserved niche market” with the shoes they need. After watching her perform in a club with her phenomenal back-up dancers, the Angels, he asks Lola to come back with him to Northampton and be his resident designer for boots, kinky and glamorous of course, specifically designed for men. Surprisingly though, the “Sex is in the Heels” number didn’t really have sexy heels in it, as the Angels wore block dance heels, nevertheless beautifully color coordinated.

Lola is to Northampton what Deloris is to the convent, and the small town is never the same again as the residents come face to face with their own prejudices against ladies, gentlemen, and “those who have yet to make up their minds.” Resident chauvinist and homophobe Don, played with rough-and-tumble gusto by Jamie Wilson, reviles Lola’s taunting flirtation, and challenges Lola to a boxing match to step up to being a real man. Even Charlie is faced with his demons as the pressure rises for him to deliver at a Milan fashion show. When Lola offers to have her Angels be the unpaid models for the show, he lashes out with slurs and insults and says that the shoes must be worn by women at the show. Lola is so angered by this she walks out on him.

There are so many thrills and moments of hilarity in this production, and director Bobby Garcia keeps the momentum going. Yanah Laurel as factory girl Lauren, madly in love with Charlie, is terribly funny in “The History of Wrong Guys.” Nel Gomez as Charlie’s friend Harry, fresh from My Name is Asher Lev and The Angry Christ, is always a pleasure to watch and performs a vigorous “Take what You Got” as he convinces Charlie to figure out what to do with the failing factory. The ensemble are pure energy with the Act 1 closing “Everybody say Yeah.”

And can we say again and again how bowled over the audience was with the Angels. They lit up the stage, they had attitude, and every kick, each raised eyebrow, each strut revved up the house to excited heights. Mr. Volante was their low-key, subtle lead. From the costume design, to the choreography, these queens owned the stage.

Mr. Volante and Mr. Mossman share an intimate “Not my Father’s Son” as they find out that what they have in common is their flawed relationships with their fathers. Each has their grand solo, “Soul of a Man” for Mr. Mossman who used his trained voice to the hilt as he realizes he is abandoned by his workers. But Mr. Volante’s “Hold Me in Your Heart” was heart-ripping, turned into a gentle comedy with the poignant reveal at the end of that scene.

Ms. Lauper’s catchy tunes and lyrics don’t carry the standard Broadway conceit of having a running melodic theme through the score. But they deliver in mood and celebration, with more sentiment and syrup, thanks also to Molinder Cadiz’ musical direction. Harvey Fierstein’s book, with huge sections taken verbatim from the film script by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, has more vitriol than the song lyrics, and Lola’s lines, like Deloris’, cut with sharp wit and humor.

And of course the kinky boots and costumes are a personality in their own right. When the final boot makes the cut and is presented to Charlie, it’s like a glamorous baby is birthed and everyone celebrates.

It has to be mentioned that for all the indications of heels as tubular sex, there’s very little of it in the show. There’s even a hint that Lola may be straight, yet he certainly shows no attraction to man or woman, or is transgender, or even a transvestite. Heterosexual attraction is still the main deal of the show (Charlie and Lauren, Charlie and Nicola, the married factory workers), which slightly reduces the “be yourself, everyone is already taken” anthem in substance by making it just about glamming it up. Lola singing “What a Woman Wants,” however, is an amusing take on gender roles and expectations.

But those accents. Can permission be requested to adapt Kinky Boots and set this in, say, Marikina? Or better yet, Liliw? Even American actors on Broadway were criticized for their take on regional British accents. This production’s sheer struggle to keep consistency throughout the show becomes too distracting. Can a director or dialect coach come up with a way to just make reference to an accent to stay true to the script’s context, but only to a point so that it rolls off naturally on the tongue? We must learn to accept that British English is a foreign language in the Philippines.

All of that aside, Kinky Boots is the show to watch. Prepare to stand on your feet at the end. Sister Act will get you to do that too, but with Kinky Boots it will be an ovation.

Tickets to both Sister Act and Kinky Boots are available through TicketWorld.