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Theater Review: Entertaining and Enlightening ‘Kinky Boots’ is the Happy Pill You Didn’t Know You Needed

There are two big Broadway musicals running on Triangle stages this week. Both are musical stage adaptations of movies. Both movies were first released a year apart. And both shows attempt to use their platform to deliver some universal, moral message.

While many angst-filled teens (and their parents) will flock to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) without hesitation to see Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, the less obvious but more sensible choice for a morality play is the North Carolina Theatre production of Kinky Boots. Why? Mean Girls perpetuates stereotypes. Kinky Boots defies them.

Inspired by actual events, Kinky Boots follows the story of Charlie Price, heir to a shoe factory in England, who is trying to save his family’s business. Surprisingly, he finds his niche market (and himself) at a drag queen’s show in London.

Kinky Boots opened on Broadway in 2013. The show won six Tony Awards, including one for its original score by ‘80s pop icon Cyndi Lauper and one for leading actor Billy Porter, who originated the role of Lola, a drag queen who is unafraid to “live out loud” and teaches Charlie and company a thing or two about identity and acceptance.

In the North Carolina Theatre production, Joseph Anthony Byrd, who made his Broadway debut in Kinky Boots in 2017, zips up the red boots and delivers an unwavering and perceptive performance as Lola. Truly, one of the factors that can either make or break this show (and I’ve seen it done both ways) is the casting of Lola. And Byrd is exceptional. Less impressive is Graham Scott Fleming whose portrayal of Charlie is sweet albeit inconsistent. But as Charlie’s love interest, Lauren, Sydni Beaudoin shines. Beaudoin takes complete ownership of Lauren and delivers an expressive and spot-on comedic display that is positively refreshing. Notable too are the ensemble of Angels, a band of brothers who bring to mind an old Fred and Ginger adage: Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards…and in high heels.”

For this production, Director Nathan Peck has preserved the feel and flavor of the original Broadway production, while infusing the show with some new choreography and a few new ideas, most of which work. There are a few odd audio effects that feel like a misstep, but don’t derail the overall strong production values.

More importantly, this production, this cast, and the entire creative team, is clearly invested in the show’s purpose, which is not only to entertain, but to enlighten. Whereas Mean Girls’ message about unity and solidarity feels more like an afterthought, Kinky Boots is resolute. Don’t let the misnomer ‘kinky’ dissuade you. Yes, there are some gender-bending ideas here, but in the end, Kinky Boots is about kindness, compassion, and believing in yourself and one another. And those are some ideals that this old mom can rally behind.

Kinky Boots runs through Sunday, February 16 at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. For more information visit https://nctheatre.com/shows/kinky-boots%20 or the RDU on Stage Calendar page.

Hear the RDU on Stage podcast interview with Joseph Anthony Byrd here.

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