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STAGE REVIEW

‘Kinky Boots’ has a hitch in its stride at North Shore Music Theatre

Julian Malone as Lola and the cast of "Kinky Boots" at North Shore Music Theatre.David Costa

BEVERLY — At one point in the North Shore Music Theatre production of “Kinky Boots,” cabaret performer Lola (Julian Malone) confidently proclaims that: “Drag queens are mainstream!”

Evidence abounds for the truth of what Lola says.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” has been a TV hit for more than a dozen years now. No one batted an eyelash that — in keeping with the longstanding tradition of “Hairspray” — Edna Turnblad was played by an actor in drag in a touring production at Citizens Bank Opera House that wrapped up Sunday. “Kinky Boots” proved to be a smash on Broadway, where it ran for six years and more than 2,500 performances.

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But are the currents of what constitutes the “mainstream” shifting? Our nation appears to be going through a moment of cultural convulsion, with a radically conservative majority empowered and energized on the US Supreme Court, and reactionary forces seemingly poised to seize an even larger chunk of political power in the Nov. 8 midterms. It’s safe to assume that election deniers and rights deniers are cut from essentially the same cloth, which bodes trouble ahead.

Against that backdrop, the NSMT production of “Kinky Boots,” directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill, reverberates as a timely theatrical statement on behalf of freedom of expression.

What “Kinky Boots” lacks, though, is the consistent charge of electricity a great musical can generate. Cyndi Lauper wrote the music and lyrics, and Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, and these seasoned pros have both done better work.

Lauper did compose a few first-rate songs such as “Sex Is in the Heel” and “Everybody Say Yeah.” “Raise You Up/Just Be” is one of the most rousing finales you’re ever likely to hear, the bromidic quality of message-laden lyrics like “Just be who you wanna be” notwithstanding.

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But the reality is that too many of the tunes for “Kinky Boots” lack the spark of true originality; some of them come across as pop songs that could be plugged into pretty much any show. Too much of Fierstein’s book has a mechanical, paint-by-numbers quality. The choreography by the usually adept Hill doesn’t reach much beyond various iterations of stride-and-strut.

This staging of “Kinky Boots” was also performed this past summer at NSMT’s sister theater, Theatre By The Sea, in Wakefield, R.I., with two-thirds of the same cast and also directed and choreographed by Hill.

I didn’t see it then, but the NSMT production underscores how dependent “Kinky Boots” is for its magic moments on the incandescence of a sublime performer like Billy Porter, who originated the role of Lola on Broadway and won a Tony Award in 2013.

That’s not a knock on Malone, who endows Lola (born Simon) with the requisite blend of audacity, authority, vulnerability, and flair. But there’s an overall thinness to “Kinky Boots” that neither Malone nor the rest of the generally solid cast can overcome.

The story revolves around the unlikely partnership between uptight, financially stressed Charlie Price (Luke Hamilton) who inherits a struggling shoe factory in Northampton, England, and flamboyant, freewheeling Lola (born Simon). A tepid presence at first, Hamilton seems to grow in confidence as the show progresses.

Charlie and Lola set out to transform the factory’s mission (and save the workers’ jobs) by designing and manufacturing a line of high-heeled boots for a “niche market”: drag performers in perpetual search of stylish, high-quality footwear. The goal is to engineer a marketing and rebranding splash for Price & Son by unveiling the boots at a major fashion show in Milan.

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A barely developed subplot involves the crush that worker Lauren (Audrey Belle Adams) harbors on Charlie. Adams does a capable job conveying Lauren’s likability and her yearning, but her big solo number, “The History of Wrong Guys,” is not quite the showstopper it should be.

A fundamental problem with “Kinky Boots” is that it lacks much in the way of core conflict. Too little of the show sizzles with the kind of high-stakes, dramatic clashes that keep you engrossed in the spaces between songs. There’s some workplace friction, sure. One quasi-villain, burly foreman Don (James Fairchild), opposes the transition to fancy footwear and the invasion of the factory by outsiders in strapless gowns and high heels. And Charlie and Lola have a brief falling out in Act Two as they argue over whether female models or the drag queens should occupy center stage at the Milan show.

But in the end, “Kinky Boots” comes across as a case study in the risks of transparently constructing a show as a crowd-pleaser. “Kinky Boots” does indeed please the crowd. But the best musicals aim higher — and deeper — than that.

KINKY BOOTS

Book by Harvey Fierstein. Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill. Music direction by Dan Rodriguez. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly. Through Nov. 6. Tickets start from $63-$88. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org

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Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.