Love takes many shapes in ‘It Shoulda Been You’ and ‘Kinky Boots’

Jacob-Group-B

Marty (Jacob Grant) is discouraged from interfering with his ex’s wedding in ‘It Shoulda Been You,’ above; obelow, Lola , Timothy Ware stands up as a proud drag queen in ‘Kinky Boots.’

 

It’s a wedding nobody seems to be glad about except the happy couple. Jenny (Jodi C. Wright), the plump, dour older sister of the bride, Rebecca (Katie Moyes Williams), is stressed with helping plan the wedding, while their mother Judy (Linda Leonard) keeps changing her mind about details… except she can’t be bothered to learn the groom’s name. (It’s Brian, by the way, played by Matthew Clark.) His parents, George and Georgette (Bob Hess and Wendy Welch), aren’t invested in the ceremony, either, and they might stop it, if either could sober up long enough to put a plan in place. Georgette is a clingy mom (she admits she tried to turn Brian gay by dressing him up as a kid and poisoning his mind about women) and George hasn’t hugged his son in decades. When Rebecca’s ex boyfriend Marty (Jacob Grant) hears about it, he also wants to stop the wedding. But Rebecca and Brian seem determined to get hitched, with the support of her maid of honor Annie (Kimberly M. Oliver) and his best man Greg (Chris Ramirez).

You’re probably expecting everything to culminate in wacky wedding (or not) at the end of Act 2 — cue the finale ultimo. But the nuptials are concluded before Act 1 ends… and that’s when things really start to get crazy.

If you’re a devotee of the output of Uptown Players, there may be a point early on where you wonder how It Shoulda Been You, their latest musical now playing at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, fits into their mission. But it does, trust me. And that’s its surprising fun.

With its hotel setting and zingy one-liners (at one point, Judy complains of Brian that “He’s so white bread, he sweats mayonnaise”), the script has the jaunty, almost retro sprightliness of a Neil Simon comedy. It’s fast-paced, but not an outright farce, so the humor derives as much from the characters as from the situations.

That’s a blessing and a curse sometimes in this show, whose plot is so diffuse and whose ensemble so evenly matched, you’re not quite sure what to make of it. Will this be an ugly-duckling-finds-love story? A mismatched-couple-surprises-everyone romance? A good-guy-wins-back-his-girl comedy? A competing-moms catfight? The answer, as it turns out, is “Yes.”

Sharing more specifics would undermine the charming twists in the airy confection, a lighthearted romp of a musical that calls to mind Tony and Tina’s Wedding without all the meta-noise and spaghetti dinner. The score itself is a trifle. Some numbers tip their hats to genre songs (Sondheim, the cheesy wedding ballad, even the blues), but even those that aren’t inherently memorable are made more so by the execution. Wright in particular delivers some diva-worthy belting that knocks her numbers out of the ballpark.

Is there any greater treat than watching two distinguished pros like Leonard and Welch relish in their own Feud-like riffs. And Mikey Abrams was born to play Albert, the experienced wedding planner who magically seems to be three steps ahead of every crisis; he’s a delicious mix of Jay Robinson’s Caligula and Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur with a cuddly element thrown in. I’m still puzzling over director/choreographer Ann Nieman’s decision to maintain a foggy haze over the stage from start to finish, but add in a great discovery like Grant as the lanky and loveable Marty, and you have a winner. Break out the champagne.

Kinky BootsTim Ware

 

A man in a depressed blue-collar town tries to find some way to raise money to keep his business afloat and his employees happy, and learns a lesson about acceptance and love along the way. Yes, we all love It’s a Wonderful Life… but that’s not it. Neither is it The Full Monty, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Did I mention drag qeens? Well, it’s not La Cage aux Folles, either. Nope, that’s the plot of Kinky Boots, a joyous musical that wears its joyousness like a badge of honor. The Tony-winning show, at Fair Park through April 9, is a sequined message musical that tells us to believe in ourselves.
In some ways, that’s the downside. Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the script, has a tendency to luxuriate in self-pity. From the young Charlie (Curt Hansen), who unwelcomely inherits a Northern England shoe factory on its last feet to Lola (Timothy Ware), a drag queen who may hold the solution to Charlie’s financial problems, there’s a mawkishness to these trials and tribulations. Fierstein seems to be writing for a mainstream audience he’s trying to win over to progressive thinking, rather than preaching to the choirboys.

But if the script is problematic, the energy is infectious, fueled by Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-winning score. Hansen has the cute looks and soaring voice of a boy-band frontman on solos like Step One” and “Soul of a Man” and wins you over quickly. And from the thoughtful ballad “Not My Father’s Son” (elegantly conveying what Fierstein clumsily pummels) that conjured “True Colors” to the ending anthem, Kinky Boots is at its best not when it’s making a direct point, but when it sneaks up on you. Clad in a frock and heels, we see how Lola is a force to be reckoned with; but dressed as Simon, he’s insecure and average. That’s a lesson we all can appreciate.

— Arnold Wayne Jones