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'Kinky Boots' and its high-heeled message of acceptance heading to Baltimore

The award-winning musical "Kinky Boots" to bring its message of acceptance to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.

Worn down by soured deals and competition from cheap imports, a shoe factory in the heartland of England is about to shut its doors after more than a century. Enter a drag queen named Lola and, in short order, a brainstorm that leads to the creation of a highly specialized line of footwear.

In the flick of a boa, the factory is saved. The new mantra: "No longer are we making shoes. We are making two and a half feet of irresistible, tubular sex."

Welcome to the spirited, tuneful, multi-Tony Award-winning world of "Kinky Boots," the musical that steps in very prominent heels onto the stage of the Hippodrome Theatre this week.

The show, with a book by playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein and a score by singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper, is based on a film of the same name from 2005. That movie was triggered by a 1999 BBC report about a struggling company in Northampton, W.J. Brookes, improbably turned around thanks to an out-of-the-blue call from a shop-owner seeking women's shoes and boots that could handle the weight of men in drag.

Although the company only enjoyed a brief success after producing these niche products before foreign competition forced it to close a few years later (the owner ended up working as a firefighter), the story of an old factory coming back from the brink by thinking outside the shoe box proved irresistible to creative types.

Writers Geoff Deane and Tim Firth fashioned the cinematic "Kinky Boots," which introduced the character of Lola and other fictional elements, especially about father-son conflicts, to propel a feel-good plot. Two theater producers, Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig, saw that film and recognized the potential for a musical version.

After securing a seasoned Tony-winner, Jerry Mitchell, to direct and choreograph, those producers secured the uniquely qualified Fierstein to write the book for the show — his award-studded career includes a hefty share of work performing and/or writing for drag characters ("Torch Song Trilogy," "La Cage aux Folles," "Hairspray"), as well as turning movies into successful musicals ("La Cage," "Newsies").

Fierstein, acting on a suggestion made by his brother, then approached Lauper about doing the music and lyrics, even though she had never written for Broadway.

"[Fierstein] didn't contact Andrew Lloyd Webber," Lauper says. "I was told there were no rules regarding what I wrote. It was an honor to be part of something bigger than yourself. I could be a much better poet, a much better writer, but I tried to give them everything they needed. And if it didn't work, I went back and rewrote it. I kept trying to make Jerry and Harvey happy. I had a lot of fun doing it."

So did Fierstein.

"We all loved what we were writing," he says. "If I didn't, I wouldn't bother. It was a constant collaboration, finding solutions to problems."

The result is a musical with a pronounced kick, as much from Lola and her entourage of drag artists as from the emotional arc of the story and the energy of the songs. "Kinky Boots" may resemble other musicals, especially recent ones with British working-class settings ("The Full Monty," "Billy Elliot") and against-the-odds efforts, but it has its own character because — well, because of its characters.

Lola's past baggage with her father adds a deeper dimension, as does a parallel plot line about the factory owner, Charlie Price.

"My job is to tell stories about individuals, not groups of people," Fierstein says. "I don't write crappy stereotypical characters, Lola is a human being who is living her life her own way. She has disappointed her father, the person who means the most to her in the world. But her father, knowing this is a tough world, made sure she would know how to fight. Charlie's father wants him to be a shoemaker, but knows he doesn't want to be."

The paternal issue looms large in the musical.

"That's the thing that bonds Charlie and Lola," says Kyle Taylor Parker, who plays Lola in the national tour production. "At first, they feel they are very different from each other, but then they see that their childhood is a sore point for both of them."

Adds Lauper: "We all have spoken and unspoken expectations of our parents that we try to live up to."

In "Kinky Boots," Charlie and Lola (real name Simon) both end up coming to terms with those expectations and feeling even more comfortable in their own skin. But getting there takes time, especially for Charlie, who seems unfocused and unsettled initially.

In addition to figuring out how to save a factory — and just deciding if he wants to bother — Charlie has to navigate the desires of his London-focused, ambitious girlfriend. And then there's Lauren, the young factory employee who just might be better for him, if he would only notice. The reason for Charlie's off-center state?

"He has not really accepted himself," Fierstein says.

Acceptance is the major chord in this musical. It doesn't just resonate in Lola's predictable I-am-what-I-am attitude.

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In between the struggles to design stylish new footwear, Lola has to face down a heap of bigotry in the form of Don, a beefy factory worker. That leads to an agreement that calls on each man to accept a challenge from the other. Lola's challenge to Don gets past the stilettos and to the heart of the show.

"Lola tells Don he has to find someone and accept them for who they are," Lauper says. "I love that idea. When you really don't like something about somebody, you may find out that they remind you of yourself, and that ticks you off deep down. What a great thing, this idea [in the musical] that you can change the world when you change your mind."

If such messages are not new or unique to "Kinky Boots," there is a difference.

"The music is something we have never heard before, and that's what gives [the message] the newest mark," Parker says. "Cyndi Lauper's score is so infectious."

Lauper, famed for such hits as "Time After Time," "True Colors" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," embraced the task of crafting the lyrics and melodies for a show with such distinctive characters. Her effort was rewarded with a singular honor, becoming the first woman on her own to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

"Writing for Lola was easy," Lauper says. "There were a couple of dynamic characters in my mind that became Lola in the music. The other guy, Charlie, he was hard to crack. Then I realized the character just needs a rock song that's really driving so we could find out how Charlie basically grew a spine. I thought Lauren would be fine if I gave her something like Blue Angel [Lauper's band in the early 1980s] and a song where you would laugh, like 'You Gotta Have a Gimmick' in 'Gypsy.' "

One number in the score, the Lola-led "What a Woman Wants," was prompted by the show's director.

"Jerry wanted a tango," Lauper says. "I had just come back from Argentina and had listened to tango electronico [a fusion of traditional tango and electronic music]. I was excited about the possibility of doing something like that on Broadway."

The kinetic diversity of Lauper's music for "Kinky Boots" neatly matches the roller-coaster ride of the story that generated six Tonys, including the Best Musical plum.

"The most thrilling part of being in this show is seeing the audience response, people standing at the end and dancing," Parker says. "But it's not just the end; you also hear it in the scenes where people are clearly rooting for Lola and want to defend her when bad things happen. Lola and the show are really important right now, not just because of the fabulosity of a drag queen, but because it's about the fabulosity inside each of us."

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