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‘Kinky Boots’ aims at the hearts and wallets of middle America

When Jerry Mitchell, the director and choreographer of the hit Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” was preparing the show for a presentation to potential investors in New York City, he had a last-minute stroke of genius.

“I only had three pair of rehearsal kinky boots built,” Mitchell said in a phone interview about the show, which opens a six-day run Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday. One of the actors playing Don, a burly factory worker whose evolution from an intolerant village boob to a champion for equality is a central theme of the show, was bootless. So Mitchell lent his own size-13 drag queen boots to the actor for one crucial scene.

“I said, ‘Look, I just have a feeling if you have those boots on, that visual is going to make all the difference in the world to the people who are watching,’ ” Mitchell said. “When he came out on the runway in those boots, I saw investor producers who I’ve known for 25 years scream, with tears rolling down their cheeks, they were so moved by the arc of that character. I thought, that really is gold.”

It turned out to be gold at the Broadway box office, where “Kinky Boots” – which tells the unlikely story of a struggling shoe factory owner and the cross-dressing performer who swoops in to save him by marketing haute couture boots to drag queens – has pulled in more than $146 million in gross receipts since it opened in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in April 2013.

It’s also done brisk business on the road, garnering enthusiastic reactions some have seen as demonstrating the rapidly evolving attitudes of conservative middle America toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

For Mitchell, the musical owes at least some of its popularity to the recent rapid advances of the LGBT rights movement.

“I see it as a musical that came on Broadway at exactly the right time. We as a nation are still grappling with, collectively, the right of equality for gay people to be married,” he said. “The next fight is going to be for transgender America, because that’s even deeper hidden in the closet up until now. And this musical certainly makes you sit up and listen.”

The show, adapted by Harvey Fierstein from the 2005 British independent film of the same name and featuring the first Broadway score by pop singer Cyndi Lauper, also draws on an increasing sympathy for the working class. That’s why the character of Don, a factory worker whose small-mindedness gradually melts into an embrace of Lola, seems to connect with so many audience members.

“For a lot of people in the heart of the Midwest, that character Don is the most important character in the show because if they see themselves in him, then they might walk out of the theater and say, oh God, I’ve got to look at my neighbor in a different way,” Mitchell said.

As for Lauper’s score, he added, her background as an artist plays perfectly into the themes of the show.

“She’s sort of been an outsider all her life in the music business, so why wouldn’t she understand that character of Lola so beautifully?” Mitchell said. “She had the ‘True Colors’ song and she understands equality, and she’s into all of that. So it really was a no-brainer.”

Kyle Taylor Parker, who took over the role of Lola on Broadway from Billy Porter in January, noted that the show is unique because it sidesteps the standard love story that characterizes almost every Broadway musical in history.

“It’s a bromance,” Parker said the friendship between Lola and Charlie over their joint struggling to live up to the expectations of their fathers. “They just become awesome friends.”

The show’s choreography is another distinguishing factor: It features a much-talked-about scene in which drag queens dance on conveyor belts.

“It took a lot of research because first we had to build the treadmills, then we had to put it up 4 feet off the ground. At first, we had no bars, and I must have fallen at least four or five times,” Mitchell said. “It was a six-month process.”

But the payoff, a scene in which drag queens pour off the factory’s production line like glitter-covered symbols of equality, was evidently worth it. As is the moment when Don, the transformed factory worker, steps onto the stage in a pair of gleaming drag queen boots.

“It’s like a fire. It’s like somebody strikes a match when he comes out in those boots,” Mitchell said. “And everyone who’s presenting the show, all of the presenters across North America, the first thing they want to do is get a picture in the kinky boots.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com