Don't be misled by the title—there's nothing kinky in Cindy Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's multiple award-winning musical fable. On the contrary, Kinky Boots is about sons trying to fill the big shoes left by their fathers. It's about putting the shoe on the other foot, setting aside prejudices bred of dissimilar cultures and uniting in pursuit of common goals. It's about walking a mile in somebody else's shoes—and if the you-know-what fits, wearing it.
Of course, we're not talking just any shoes: Charlie is the reluctant heir to a rural-based shoe factory, renowned for its sturdy bluchers, but that now sees its customer base shrinking, while Simon, a likewise country-born lad, now makes his living as Lola, the owner and star performer of a London club for Drag Queens. Charlie needs a product that will rescue the business and its employees from bankruptcy. Simon/Lola needs pelvis-skimming, stiletto-heeled, patent-leather footwear. A chance encounter between these two mismatched soles—um, souls—sparks invention, and with it, awareness and appreciation of everyone's right to strut their stuff, free and unencumbered.
When a play's dramatic question revolves around the struggle of creating the harmony demanded by a central visual metaphor occurring in pairs, a theater company bereft of massive budgets must also rely on its ingenuity to overcome the difficulties of supplying performers whose feet are their livelihood with boots combining the strength of surgical splints and daintiness of ballet slippers.
"Our final scene features sixteen characters of different shapes and sizes wearing high heels," declares production director Trent Stork—a contingent whose podiatric wardrobe mandates not just a cattle drive's worth of leather, but internal underpinnings ensuring sufficient knee and ankle support for welterweight hoofers executing pancake-landing splits and back-handsprings eight times a week.
Fortunately, Paramount's staff includes Craft Specialist D.J. Reed. The boots worn in the show may be commercially manufactured, but rendering them stageworthy begins with a trip to a professional cobbler, where their assembly is augmented by rubberized soles and additional heel-reinforcement. After that, there may be still more. "If you have an especially muscular performer, you might [still] have trouble zipping the legs all the way up." he explains, "We remedy this with elastic gores stitched into the shafts, to accommodate men's heavier calves and thighs."
Other adjustments might include platform soles or stirrup-anchored "toppers"—outer shells fitting over the leg portions—modeled on [designer] Ryan Park's costume sketches. These devices, according to Reed, were created for the Milan Fashion Show scene, which features the titular boots decorated in iconic British motifs. Let's not forget, either, the hygienic measures necessary to guard against injuries and infections.
"We looked for boots with the laces in front and zippers in back for an easy on/off so that actors can remove them between scenes." Stork assures me, adding that all tights and socks are laundered daily "and we also have an array of medical professionals on hand."
Male actors trained for classical repertory are usually able to navigate comfortably in two or three-inch "Frenchies" while female actors with film or television credits often have occasion to trip the light fantastic in five-inch Louboutins, but how many of the Paramount performers arrived with insteps, phalanges and metatarsals at the ready?
"Casting the show, I was surprised to discover how many actors had experience in roles requiring high-heels," Stork admits, "not just the drag performers, either, but several people you wouldn't expect. For example, Mark Lancaster—who plays big, brawny, bigoted Don—hosts drag bingo off-duty! I asked if he'd be comfortable in heels, and he goes 'no problem!'."
Kinky Boots runs at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora through October 17.
Mary Shen Barnidge