Entertainment Stage Why Kinky Boots keeps scoring standing ovations
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Why Kinky Boots keeps scoring standing ovations

Kinky Boots Australia
Kinky Boots has been a runaway hit Down Under. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Disclaimer: I am not a huge fan of musicals. I don’t actively hate them, but I’d typically take a dodgy Hollywood movie over a great song-and-dance any day.

So it was with a dubious anticipation that I attended a performance of Cyndi Lauper’s acclaimed Kinky Boots in Melbourne, its first stop in what is likely to be a nation-wide tour.

Based on a 2005 movie of the same name, the musical tells the story of Charlie, a young man tasked with rescuing his family’s ailing shoe factory after his footwear-loving father dies.

His saving grace comes in the form of Lola, a drag queen whose need for sturdy but fabulous high heels inspires Charlie’s creative side.

By the time interval rolled around, I had decided this joyous, infectious production was one of the best things I’d ever seen.

I wasn’t alone. As families and friends filed out to grab a halftime snack, I overheard comments that warmed my heart, from a variety of unexpected sources.

One man in his 70s exclaimed to his tweed jacket-clad friend: “You were right Barry, it’s superb!”

“That lead actor’s not a bad sort when he’s dressed as a woman,” another buttoned-up businessman sheepishly observed to his date.

By the end of the show, families were laughing together, everyone was enthusiastically clapping in time to the music and, as the curtain was about fall, the entire room leapt to their feet in a standing ovation.

A lot of that, if not all of it, has to do with one man: 28-year-old Manchester-born Callum Francis.

Callum Francis is a standout as drag queen Lola. Photo: J Green
Callum Francis is a standout as drag queen Lola. Photo: J Green

Fresh from being an understudy in the West End production, Francis plays Lola (real name Simon) with such energy and skill he is a complete scene-stealer – an achievement in such a brilliant cast.

All long, lithe limbs and soaring vocals, Francis’s performance is positively athletic, complemented by his perfect comic timing and nuanced acting.

Out of drag, he’s like a young Neil Patrick Harris – able to slide between all-out campiness, to biting sarcasm, to emotional gravitas.

In drag, he’s Beyonce.

When I tell Francis about the baffled reactions he incites from fully grown men, he is gleeful.

“I love confusing people,” he laughs, adding, “I’m lucky, I’ve got my Mum’s legs.”

Francis (right) with his co-star Toby Francis, who plays Charlie. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Callum Francis (right) with his co-star Toby Francis, who plays Charlie. Photo: Matthew Murphy

He scored the gig after hearing from a friend that the Aussie production was struggling to find its Lola and immediately throwing his hat in the ring.

It was Lauper, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics, who gave him the official OK.

“It’s so weird she’s this huge icon who knows my name,” Francis says of the beloved ’80s singer.

“I’ve got her number, we text. She’s so busy but she takes time to go ‘how’s your voice?’ ”

Francis relocated his life to Australia from London and is doing eight shows a week as the straight-talking Lola – a gig he says is ridiculously fun but incredibly gruelling, especially in six-inch heels.

“I feel like such an old man doing this job because I go into bars and if it’s too loud I leave because I don’t want to shout,” he laughs.

At the moment he’s struggling with some hayfever, courtesy of Melbourne’s spring winds.

“It was so embarrassing, during last night’s show I turned around for the big reveal and my nose actually dripped. So gross. I’m hoping no one saw.”

The entire cast is hilarious and energetic. Photo: Matthew Murphy
The entire cast is hilarious and energetic. Photo: Matthew Murphy

It’s unlikely, given most audience members would be distracted by the fabulous costumes, dance numbers and – of course – the eponymous boots. Francis wears them like he came out of the womb in stilettos.

“It’s weird actually, because I don’t know [how I walk in them],” he says, “it just works. Someone told me to stride out and not be tentative so that’s what I did.”

While he insists he’s nowhere near as camp as Lola (“I grew up with four brothers”) he does share her sense of humour, and he’s not keen on giving up the role anytime soon.

“I want them to make the Kinky Boots musical back into a movie and I’ll be Lola in that,” he says of his dream next career step.

“It’s hard work, but it’s such a laugh.”

Kinky Boots is currently on at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. You can buy tickets to the show hereKinky Boots will come to Sydney in April 2017.

Watch Callum Francis rehearse one of the show’s numbers:

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