Saturday, February 4, 2023

Acceptance wrapped in glitz, glam and ‘Kinky Boots’: Opera House opens Tony-winning musical

Opera House Theatre Company opened “Kinky Boots” over the weekend, with the annual New Year’s Eve Thalian Hall gala selling out. (Art Sublimina Photography/Bryan Putnam)

WILMINGTON — It’s been hailed by the Grammy’s for its musical score by ‘80s pop icon Cyndi Lauper and bestowed six Tony’s (it was nominated for a season-high 12) after its 2013 opening. 

“Kinky Boots” now makes its debut on Wilmington’s community theater scene after staging 2,507 performances on Broadway and touring from Chicago to the West End theater in London over the past 10 years (the professional production toured through Wilson Center in 2019). Opera House Theatre Company opened the production over the weekend, with the annual New Year’s Eve Thalian Hall gala selling out.

It’s an apropos musical to welcome the fresh start of a new year, as the show’s sentimental lesson on acceptance comes wrapped in a glitzy bow — and, of course, in stiletto boots.

“This show has never been more timely,” director Justin Smith told Port City Daily. “It sometimes feels we are on the brink of stepping backward as a society when it comes to inclusion. Homophobia and bigotry remain a lightning-rod issue in politics and religion.”

A decade ago when “Kinky Boots” first made its premiere, the Defense of Marriage Act was being challenged in federal appeals court, specifically a section that showed discrimination against same-sex marriage. At the end of 2022, the Respect for Marriage Act, which provides “statutory authority for same-sex and interracial marriages,” was signed into law by President Joe Biden.

“So, maybe we are on the right track,” Smith said. “Good to have shows like this to remind us if you are able to open your mind a little, your heart just may follow.”

Based on a 2005 British film by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, the story was adapted for the stage by Harry Fierston. It follows a young man, Charlie Price, as he inherits an almost-bankrupt shoe factory after his father’s sudden passing. Price becomes transfixed with saving the company to honor his dad’s legacy, but to do so he must take a different approach to its business plan. It always focused on drab, though well-made and expensive, men’s shoes.

After a drink with a buddy one night, Charlie tries to help a lady being attacked, only to find out later when he comes to, she is actually a cabaret performer and drag queen. An unlikely friendship blossoms between Charlie and Lola, as she inspires Charlie to fill a niche market by making flashy shoes that can hold a male’s weight. 

Performing as Charlie in the production is Jon Berry, who also has taken on roles in Opera House shows such as “Les Miserables” in the past and can be seen on TV shows “Nashville” and “FBI.” Berry said he has prepared for Charlie by exploring the physicality of his character.

”This is a very physical show,” Barry said. “Charlie and I are actually very different, so it’s been a nice change to play in some new shoes.”

”This is a very physical show,” Jon Barry said. “Charlie and I are actually very different, so it’s been a nice change to play in some new shoes.” (Art Sublimina Photography/Bryan Putnam)

Charlie is at most in his early 30s, looking to follow his fiancée to London to pursue real estate. He is a bit unfocused and confused and the antithesis of Lola, a glamorous performer who once was a prized boxer but now approaches the world draped in sequins and satin.

Performing as Lola in the Opera House production is Justin Allen Tate, who has been doing musical theater for more than 20 years. It’s his second time filling the role’s shoes; he first performed as Lola in 2019 for Memphis’ Playhouse on the Square, though also received callbacks for the Broadway tour.

“I think I’ve been preparing for a role like this my entire career,” Tate said. “She takes the entire room when she enters, which I love.”

Tate is having fun as Lola, a daunting task to bring her to life that can’t be done without backstage hands helping with her numerous costume and makeup changes. 

“The task of going from a fabulous drag queen to a fabulous guy is not easy, but we make it look that way,” he said. 

While the underlying message in the show is clear — be yourself, embrace yourself, love yourself — Tate said he also hopes the show brings joy. 

“I want people to go home entertained,” he said. “Our lives are so busy, sometimes we must take a break to smile and tap our toes. … [but] Justin really challenged us to be truthful and come from a place of honesty as actors.”

Smith didn’t shy away from leaning on the original production to decide the best way to approach Opera House’s version. The Broadway production firt starred Billy Porter as Lola and Stark Sands as Charlie. 

“Because this show is so well-known and ran for so long, using the original as a ‘jumping off point’ seemed like the only way to start,” Smith said. 

“Kinky Boots” premiered in 2012 and has been staged in some form or fashion since, including a Broadway tour throughout 2022. 

“Generally, my directing philosophy is to highlight the story, character arcs and relationships,” Smith said. “Not performing in a huge touring hall allows us to tone down the broader choices and really focus on the humanity of this very moving piece.”

It consists of almost 20 numbers and sometimes demanding dance moves, choreographed by Carson Hobbs. 

Smith said making its many moving pieces seamless — from the set of a shoe factory to cabaret room, designed by Terry Collins, among many costume changes made possible by Allyson Mojica — was key to a dedicated crew.

“The wild and long dance numbers are challenging but [the] beautiful score is made to look easy,” he said. 

Brian Whitted serves as music director, joined onstage by eight other musicians, on keys, guitar, reeds, trumpet, trombone bass and drums. 

“There are three numbers the band has to do without me,” Whitted said. “And the drummer, Mitch Hebert, has an acoustic kit, and electric kit and numerous drum tracks. He is basically doing the job of three people. On another note, it’s really hard to find cellists.”

Whitted praised the cast for meeting the “incredible” vocal range demanded of the production. It’s apparent in “Land of Lola” and “Not My Father’s Son” — two songs that are the musical director’s favorites and shape the makeup of the main characters. Each has underlying similarities when it comes to the backstory of their families. 

“I think this show reminds us that no matter how different we may seem, we all have so much in common,” Barry said. “We’re all facing expectations put upon us; we’re all seeking ourselves. My hope is people leave feeling a greater compassion for those going through a different human experience than their own.”

Smith said directing “Kinky Boots” had him self-evaluate — much like good art often does: broach tough topics in relatable ways. 

“This show makes me reflect on moments in my past that I have not been accepting enough,” the director said. “That I have prejudged without any effort put forth. …  I think if [the show] helps just one person open their minds, it’s done its job.”

“Kinky Boots” is being staged at Thalian Hall Jan. 5-8 and Jan. 12-15. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $35.

Opera House Theatre Company opened “Kinky Boots” over the weekend, with the annual New Year’s Eve Thalian Hall gala selling out. (Art Sublimina Photography/Bryan Putnam)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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