Can a failing shoe factory in Northampton, England, turn business around by pursing the unconventional niche market of fetish footwear for drag queens and other "female illusionists?"
That's the based-upon-a-true story premise that inspired the 2005 British film "Kinky Boots," and now the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the same name that plays a world premiere engagement at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre from Tuesday, Oct. 2, through Sunday, Nov 4. The official Chicago opening night for "Kinky Boots" is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 17, and its anticipated 2013 Broadway opening is set for Thursday, April 4.
"Kinky Boots"Location: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com.
Showtimes: Schedule varies, but largely7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and select Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and select Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Saturdays. Oct. 2 through Nov. 4
Parking: Area pay garages
But the question for Chicago-area theatergoers is whether the musical "Kinky Boots" will become a smash hit among other critically acclaimed film-to-stage shows like "La Cage Aux Folles," "The Producers" or "Hairspray."
"Kinky Boots" certainly comes with a high pedigree. Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell ("Hairspray," "Legally Blonde") serves as director and choreographer, and he has brought aboard four-time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein ("Torch Song Trilogy") as the musical's book writer and Grammy Award-winning pop star Cyndi Lauper as the show's songwriter.
Lauper is a wild card in the equation, since "Kinky Boots" will mark her debut as a theater composer (but it's not her Broadway debut -- Lauper performed the role of Jenny in the 2006 revival of "The Threepenny Opera" at Studio 54).
When interviewed by Mitchell on the TV program "PBS Arts From Cleveland: Women Who Rock," Lauper said composing for a show's characters versus her usual pop songs "is almost easier because I know where I have to go."
"I sit and think about the characters and sit in their skin as best that I can," Lauper said. "I think that every character, even if I'm mad at them, has to have a real reason so that everybody in the audience, when they hear a song, can really identify with that person -- no matter what."
Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, a native of Paw Paw, Mich., pushed specifically for "Kinky Boots" to tryout at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre for sentimental and practical reasons. In fact, Mitchell prefers to call the Bank of America Theatre by its previous long-standing moniker because "it wall always be the Shubert Theatre to me."
Mitchell revealed in the 2004 PBS documentary "Broadway: The American Musical" that seeing a tour of "A Chorus Line" from the balcony of the Shubert proved to be pivotal moment in his life (he memorized the trickier dance routine and it helped him get hired in the show after nailing the audition). Mitchell also choreographed the tour launch of "The Full Monty" and the revue "That's Christmas" in the same venue.
"It was actually (playwright Harvey Fierstein) and I who fought to come here, because that theater feels a lot like the Al Hirschfeld Theatre where we're going to in New York, particularly the close orchestra section," Mitchell said, adding that the two-hour drive for his Michigan family was an added bonus. "'Kinky Boots' is a very intimate and moving story, and I wanted the close proximity to the audience."
How moving is "Kinky Boots"?
The New York Post theater gossip columnist Michael Riedel reported how a January workshop of the show reduced a rehearsal room full of powerful Broadway producers to tears. No, it wasn't the footwear that did it, but the troubled father-son relationships depicted in the show between the characters of shoe factory owner Charlie (Stark Sands) and the drag queen Lola (Billy Porter), who both initially consider themselves failures in their father's eyes.
"By meeting, (Charlie and Lola) become successful on their own terms and realize that they can respect each other and other people around them with the lives that they want to live," Mitchell said. "It's a universal story because I think everyone has some sort of an issue with their father. Every man, woman and child, asking, 'Do I measure up and how do I measure up?' That's the heart of the story."
But on the flashy flip side, "Kinky Boots" also has plenty of built-in opportunities for big musical production numbers thanks to the seedy London SoHo bar where the drag queens perform. In fact, drag queens are what first brought Mitchell and Lauper together when he choreographed her 1994 Gay Games Closing Ceremonies performance of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" backed up by 50 female impersonators from the New York tri-state area.
"Cyndi has been a breath of fresh air for us," Mitchell said, proudly confirming that Lauper has been and will be actively part of the process of writing "Kinky Boots" unlike other pop stars in the past who have kept their distance by emailing in songs or going on tour while a show is trying out. "(Cyndi) is a big fan of musical theater and she's been up to the challenge."
It also is a dream come true for actors Billy Porter (the New York revivals of "Grease" and "Angels in America") and Stark Sands (HBO's "Generation Kill" and "Six Feet Under") to have Lauper and Fierstein writing custom material for them as the stars of "Kinky Boots."
"I'm still pinching myself," said Sands, who was invited to be a part of the show by Mitchell after he saw him star as Tunny in the Broadway musical version of Green Day's "American Idiot" in 2010.
"Cyndi has gotten to know all of us and what we can do vocally," Sands said, adding how she has been tweaking songs to suit the strengths of each cast member. "It's pretty special to have that kind of concern from a songwriter."
To prepare for the role, Sands has been throwing himself into getting the Northampshire English accent just right (he says it helps that his British wife, Gemma, is a great coach). Sands also made a point of visiting the English Tricker's shoe factory where the film was shot to help him personally understand the manufacturing process.
As for Porter, who notably appeared in Chicago as part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Gay Games at Soldier Field, he's relishing the chance to play such a dynamic character as Lola.
"Very often, men in dresses are played just as clowns," Porter said. "Lola is a three-dimentional character and has such a satisfying character arc."
And Porter really admires both Lauper and Fierstein for carving out niches for themselves as respected entertainers and artists throughout their long careers.
"To have these two idols of mine, who have really dug their heels in to be true to who they are in the face of lots of adversity, is really encouraging and I feel blessed to be a part of it," Porter said. "This dream of a job is amazing. This gig has made the last 25 years of my life completely make sense."