NOTES: Billy Porter, back and better than ever, in “Kinky Boots”

NOTES: Billy Porter, back and better than ever, in “Kinky Boots”

After a nearly-two year absence, Billy Porter re-joined the cast of Broadway’s 2013 Best Musical Tony winner “Kinky Boots” last month, joyously stepping back into the heels of Lola, née Simon, the beloved drag-queen at the center of the show.  Mr. Porter is that rarest of endangered species: a Broadway star (vs. a star on Broadway).  And I am pleased to report that his 2013 Tony-winning performance is better than ever.

I have seen “Kinky Boots” several times over the years, and for a while it was the show I most frequently recommended for out-of-towners.  But on my last two visits, sans Mr. Porter, there was a palpable void of energy both on stage and in the audience.  I started to wonder if the show had become tired.  Sitting in the orchestra of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre last Thursday night—tapping my feet, grinning from ear to ear, and fighting back tears—I can’t believe I ever felt that way.

Based on the eponymous 2005 film, “Kinky Boots” is about a struggling British shoe company that shifts from making boring brogues to boots for a “niche market” of drag queens after its young owner, Charlie, finds inspiration from a drag performer named Lola.  Charlie, who dreamed of escaping life in the shoe business, inherits the company when his father suddenly dies; Lola is estranged from her prize-fighting father, rejected for her sexual orientation and profession.  In the end, lessons are learned, hearts and minds changed, and plenty of high heel boots worn.  The show is about fathers and sons, changing economics, and, above all else, accepting and celebrating people for who they are. 

With Mr. Porter, as Lola, and Stark Sands, as Charlie, back on stage together for a limited run through January, “Kinky Boots” feels like Broadway’s hottest new musical, rather than one five years into its run.  Every sequin seems to shine a little brighter.  Each wig has a bit more bounce.  And every gesture, line-read, and vocal run of Mr. Porter’s is sheer perfection.  Not to mention the smart, hilarious, and heartwarming book by Harvey Fierstein; Cyndi Lauper’s fun and frisky score; and Jerry Mitchell’s sleek direction and choreography.

“Kinky Boots” is at once revolutionary and slyly conventional.  Since 2013, it has surfed a cultural and political wave, with bouts of newfound relevance and poignancy as the national mood and outlook has changed for the better and (regrettably) worse. 

On the heels (no pun intended) of the Great Recession, it dramatized the shifting macroeconomic realities of manufacturing here and abroad.  As marriage equality became the law of the land, it celebrated LGBTQ progress.  When transgender “bathroom bills” began popping up, the show responded with a clever rendition of its finale, “Just Be”, dubbed “Just Pee (Where You Wanna Pee)”.  And with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” setting ratings records, drag performance has never been more “mainstream”.

Seeing this show, at this moment, is refreshing and affirming.  The audience of mostly tourists simply loves it and has an ebullient adoration for the character of Lola, which is, itself, refreshing and affirming.  Artfully written by Mr. Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy”, “La Cage Aux Folles”), Lola is a fully-realized person, not a cheap stereotype, and forms the emotional backbone of the musical.

Yes, some of the lyrics are wince-inducing in their simplicity and heavy-handedness, and Charlie is angsty and especially schizophrenic in Act II.  But, ultimately, who cares?  We’re here for Lola and her “girls”, and the message of acceptance—of yourself and others—that lies at the heart of the show. 

There’s a revolution at “Hamilton” on 46th Street, but don’t overlook the revolution at “Kinky Boots” on 45th Street.  It might be easy to take it for granted, but for the kids—and plenty of adults—in the audience, “Kinky Boots” can be life-changing and life-shaping, even as it is also just a lot of pure, unbridled, musical comedy fun. 

At intermission, following the rousing “Everybody Say Yeah”, the middle-aged man behind me, whose untamed laughter was so honest throughout Act I, turned to his wife and said, quietly, “my dad never told me he was proud of me.”  I rest my case.

Bottom Line: There’s never been a better time to see “Kinky Boots”—Billy Porter and Stark Sands are back in the show through January, and it is as fresh, fun, funny, and heartwarming as ever. 

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Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Opening Night: April 4, 2013
Final Performance: open-ended
Discount Tickets

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