CHICAGO -- A couple of Saturdays ago, I'd just gotten out of an airport cab at a boutique hotel in the Loop, when I did what Pittsburghers often do -- I ran into a former Pittsburgher, visiting from California. So right away we made plans to see another Pittsburgher that night, a friend of many years starring in a big new musical working out its kinks on the way to Broadway.
Kinks, indeed: The musical is "Kinky Boots," and the friend with the big, juicy, flamboyant, potentially star-making role is Billy Porter, native of Homewood, graduate of Carnegie Mellon Drama and veteran of 20 years in this demanding, infuriating business. "Kinky Boots" was then in previews, but a few days later it opened to the sort of reviews that provide a big boost on the grueling marathon required of a Broadway-bound musical.
My friend was Marc Masterson, former head of Pittsburgh's City Theatre, then Actors Theatre of Louisville and now South Coast Rep in Orange County. There we were, an artistic director and a critic rooting for a performer (yes, critics do sometimes root).
Because we saw "Kinky Boots" in previews, there's a limit to how much I can say. It was still evolving, even as it was being cheered by enthusiastic audiences in one of those handsome old Broadway-size theaters that Pittsburgh lost long ago. Over dinner after the show, Billy told us the creative team was still snipping and shaping songs, and that complex costumes and sets -- maybe even whole scenes -- were still being added or cut.
But come the official press night a few days later, the critical response ran from positive to rave, with one or two skeptics. The money review, Chris Jones' in the Chicago Tribune, was positive with lots of suggestions of improvements -- just what theater people love to get from critics. But no one was lukewarm about Billy, starting with Mr. Jones: "the fabulous Billy Porter, who plays the factory-saving transvestite Lola and who drives this show with enormous skill and charm all night long."
A few others: "Billy Porter is mesmerizing in a performance that will surely earn him a Tony nomination. His Lola is equal parts Tina Turner and Whitney Houston" (Misha Davenport, BroadwayWorld.com). "Mr. Porter gives a star-turn, bravura performance as Lola. I would venture to say that 'Kinky Boots' will do for Mr. Porter what 'Hello, Dolly' did for Carol Channing, 'Funny Girl for Streisand ...' " (Michael Roberts, ShowBizChicago.com).
The eventual critical scorecard for the show is summarized by BroadwayWorld.com as five highly recommended, one recommended, two somewhat recommended and one not recommended. But Billy was praised across the board.
This Chicago shake-down run ends Friday, and the creators will go back to work on further changes, bringing the cast back together in New York in February to prepare for previews at Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre (starting March 5) and its opening on April 4.
That creative team is a mix of experienced and promising: book writer Harvey Fierstein, director Jerry Mitchell and producers Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig, all Tony winners. But the biggest name is the composer and lyricist, former pop star Cyndi Lauper, a musical theater newbie.
"Kinky Boots" was a 2005 movie based on the true story of an old family-owned shoe company in the English Midlands on the verge of extinction until it saved itself by retooling for an unusual niche market: outrageously bedazzling, thigh-high boots for drag performers. It has some of the comic culture clash of "Billy Elliot," "The Full Monty" or even (in its glam and splash) "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" -- all three also originally movies.
Unlike "Full Monty," which was moved to rust belt America (Buffalo), the musical "Kinky Boots" has been left in England, retaining its own local color. It's a feel-good musical, somewhat too predictable in plot, but you don't quite anticipate the way in which it turns out to be at base a love story. Above all, it has a very good heart and the defining presence of Lola, the drag performer, played by Billy.
You wait quite a while before he comes on, in an explosion of sequins and attendant dancers. He also appears in civilian garb, a delicious contrast, which allows him to show the serious acting skills he displayed last year as Belize in "Angels in America" at off-Broadway's Signature Theatre. Billy is the complete acting, singing, dancing package.
Smart, too, as our postshow chat gave evidence. Now if they'll just tighten everything around him. That includes Ms. Lauper's fun score, with plenty of bubble and sentiment when needed, but too many songs that go too long.
Billy has been involved with the show for more than a year, since an initial "table read." There have been workshops, for which he was sometimes available, sometimes not. They might have found someone else for Lola, but of course they couldn't.
Billy had actually stepped away from acting for some years, vowing never again to play a "black clown" like Teen Angel with the mountainous metal hair in his Broadway "Grease" (1994). He did a solo show. He recorded an album. He studied screenwriting. And he regularly came back to Pittsburgh to perform and direct, mainly at City Theatre.
So he wasn't immediately available for "Kinky Boots" on just their schedule, which is of course the best way to be -- if they can't get you easily, they want you even more, especially when it's for "something that I can do that no one else can," as Billy says.
Originally writer Mr. Fierstein planned for Lola to be straight, not gay, but Billy had something to say about that. He had a lot more to say to us that night over dinner, most of it off the record as the show continues to evolve.
There was also lots of reminiscence. Billy worked for Marc in the earliest days of City Theatre, when it produced some summer shows at Hartwood Acres, specifically "Tom Foolery" and "The House of Blue Leaves."
With us that night were David Plotnick and his partner. David's brother is Jack Plotnick, Billy's classmate at CMU, "the reason that I'm funny," Billy says. He was a serious, gospel-singing kid from Homewood, but Jack Plotnick saw he could be funny, cast him in an undergraduate revue and proved it.
Now he's proving it on a bigger stage -- and singing, dancing and acting, to (kinky) boot.
Not that he's shelved his other careers. His play, "While I Yet Live," which Phylicia Rashad called "our Negro 'August: Osage County,' " has a definite future. But right now, his goal is Broadway.
Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette senior theater critic: 412-216-1944. First Published October 30, 2012 4:00 AM