Auditions for a new musical in Chicago started with a rough patch.
Kinky Boots, preparing for its rollout three years ago, relies heavily on the costuming that is embedded in the message of the show. Specifically, this musical is about boots — shiny, thigh-high statements worn by men, whose mass and weight distribution often differ from those of women.
It is also a show that uses drag queens to redefine what is natural. While it is hardly the first to do so (and was molded around a book by La Cage aux Folles author Harvey Fierstein), Kinky Boots also bears the weight of an overtly symbolic title. The men wearing those boots are drag performers, who strut and spin and pirouette on the stage.
They need to pull all of that off with panache. Yet even at the auditions in Chicago, two heels broke.
Costume architects regrouped. The show went on to receive a season-high 13 Tony nominations in 2013. Its six wins included Best Musical and Best Original Score, a shining Broadway songwriting debut for pop singer Cyndi Lauper.
A touring Broadway production of Kinky Boots opens at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday. The costuming kinks have long since been worked out.
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Don't be too fooled by the title. In reality, the plot of Kinky Boots is more heartwarming than edgy. An adventuresome title, coupled with some always relevant messages about dealing with social codes, have helped make the show a hit.
Based on a true story, Kinky Boots centers on young Charlie Price, who inherits a shoe factory in Northampton, England, a business started by his great-grandfather.
The factory is in trouble, its standards of workmanship losing out to the cheap and mass produced. It looks like curtains for the factory, until Charlie meets Lola, a drag queen who gives him an idea that just might save it.
The story's core is the relationship between Charlie and Lola, which changes both characters. The actors in the touring show were attracted to those roles for different reasons.
Adam Kaplan, who plays Charlie, is an actor who likes to stretch himself. He sang standards in Newsies and Showboat on Broadway, and has performed jazz, rock and doo-wop from nightclub work to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hairspray. Kaplan was also a finalist in the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival's "Next Broadway Sensation" competition.
He likes Charlie because the part has "some amazing colors that you don't typically get from your leading man."
It's subtle, Kaplan said, because Charlie's bright idea — to start manufacturing boots for drag performers — springs from an economic motivation. Lola, who plays a key role in advising him, is necessary to make that happen, and that's about the extent of it.
"Charlie really is the one who has the biggest change of heart," Kaplan said. "Some people in the factory give Lola a big pushback, but it takes Charlie the longest to say, 'I accept you.' I think Lola challenges him in a way that he hasn't been challenged before."
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The Broadway show was also tested. One of the most obvious: Billy Porter, who played Lola, had never performed in drag.
Enter costume designer Gregg Barnes, miracle worker.
"There were seven characters in the play dressed up as women," Barnes said. "Only two had ever had heels on. Everybody had a huge learning curve — the makeup, the heels. My team and the shoemaker that makes those kinky boots really lived the story."
Barnes, who had won a Tony for his work on La Cage, soon realized how crucial his role in this show would be, with important choices that ran well beyond the drag queens.
"In a way," he said, "the hardest part was dressing the people in the factory," referring to the employees making good shoes in a conservative town.
The women were quicker to adapt to the new plan than were the men.
"With the women, as the play goes on, we made them brighter, more body conscious," Barnes said. "As if they are starting to care what they look like. With the men, we regressed them so they became uber cavemen. So by the end it kind of supports the audience's experience of watching the play."
Barnes' team still had an urgent matter to deal with: those heels.
"In a show called Kinky Boots," he said, "you'd better not mess up the boots."
After the Chicago auditions, costumers calculated which situations could go with true stilettos. For the others, they darkened part of the heels to make them appear more slender than they were.
No heels have broken since.
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As memorably portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the 2005 British movie of Kinky Boots, Lola is a fearless sort. In at least one aspect, J. Harrison Ghee, who plays Lola in the musical, had a head start. He had already been a drag performer for five years.
But that was in clubs. Doing it in a touring Broadway show would mean talking about that part of his life with his father, a Missionary Baptist minister who did not know about it. And the show was coming to town.
"We all strive to make our parents happy and proud, yet leave our own footprints in the sand," Ghee said. "Charlie wants to make his dad happy and proud, yet make these boots for drag queens."
Ghee broached the subject by sending his dad a newspaper article in which he had talked about it.
The night before the show, father and son had dinner.
"He said, 'So what's this drag thing about?' " Ghee shared that part of his story with his father, who seemed a little baffled by it.
"He said, 'Just don't bring any wigs home,' " Ghee said. "The following night he texted me and said he was proud of who and what I am."
Now that he's touring, Ghee enjoys seeing audiences react.
"Some of them come in thinking, 'What am I getting myself into?' " he said. "Like the husband who was dragged there by his wife — and at the end of the show he's up on his feet, clapping and singing."
That kind of shift is, of course, at the heart of this story and this musical. You don't really know another person until you have walked a mile or two in her boots.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.