Putting the (Kinky) boot in: the musical arrives with a message

Kinky Boots, the touring Broadway Across Canada musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Kinky Boots, the touring Broadway Across Canada musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You can change the world when you change your mind.”

                                                          — Kinky Boots

“You put a face and a heart on them, and over-riding ideas can change,” says Ciarán McCarthy. The amiable Canadian actor is in the touring cast of Kinky Boots, the warm-hearted Broadway hit musical that high-kicks its way onto the Jube stage Tuesday in vertiginous 8-inch heels.

The 2013 multiple Tony and Olivier Award winner, from the team of pop queen Cyndi Lauper and Broadway stalwart Harvey (Hairspray) Fierstein, tells a sole-ful tale, based on a little-seen 2005 movie and inspired by real life. Charlie Price reluctantly inherits a failing family-run shoe factory in a hard-scrabble northern English town. The business is saved when Charlie finds the unlikeliest of business partners, a flamboyant drag queen, and a niche market in glam high-heeled red boots for the cross-dressing crowd.

Their hard-won rapport, forged over the paternal expectations that have oppressed them, is the heart of it: a message about tolerance, acceptance, overcoming prejudice. And, as McCarthy says, on the phone from Vancouver where Kinky Boots plays till Sunday, that makes it “an interesting show to be touring right now.” 

Dublin-born McCarthy grew up in London, Ont.; his family emigrated when he was eight. And the star soccer player was almost certainly the only member of his acting class at New York’s AMDA (American Musical Dramatic Academy) to arrive with a history degree from a Canadian university (Western).

His “first big gig” was the national tour of The Wedding Singer. And then he got … the boot, so to speak. His first night of Kinky Boots was in Cleveland six months ago. And it didn’t take his history degree for him to appreciate the dramatic significance of the show’s arrival after that in North Carolina, home of repressive legislation about transgender use of bathrooms. “There was an audible gasp from the audience,” says McCarthy of the finale number Just Be, rewritten by Lauper and Fierstein as Just Pee. “Just be who you wanna be” became “just pee where you wanna pee.”

“The liberal-minded went YES; the conservatives (might have) recognized how ridiculous the law is…” says McCarthy hopefully.

An ensemble member who also plays the suave boss of Charlie’s status-conscious fiancée (“in a dashing navy blue suit”), McCarthy has been warmed by reactions from diverse audiences everywhere on tour. “Acceptance, love, tolerance is the message,” he says. “In Arkansas, for example, a place where you might think ….” he trails off tactfully, “the response was overwhelmingly positive”

“I think it’s about exposure,” he says. Prejudice devolves from “what you’ve been told all your life and never known anything else … a habit, bred into you.”

“There’s something safe about having (a challenge) onstage,” McCarthy muses. “True, it’s live, always less comfortable than TV. But these people (onstage) are real; they’re just trying to exist…. No matter who you are, you can see yourself in the characters onstage.”

After all, as he points out, that is the narrative thrust of Kinky Boots: “a group of blue-collar people who aren’t used to seeing glamor drag queens, have them roll into their lives.”

Kinky Boots, the touring Broadway Across Canada production. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Kinky Boots, the touring Broadway Across Canada production. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In the fall, the tour went to Japan for five weeks. And McCarthy, calls that “a life-changing experience.”

“Everything was close-captioned in English…. When the songs started, everyone clapped along.” He went on for Charlie twice during that time. And in the middle of Step One, Charlie’s complicated number about reinventing the ailing shoe factory and himself, “the sound went out…. I kept singing a capella, and they kept clapping, till it came back on. It was a pretty stellar moment. And at the end the audience went nuts!”

After seven months on the road, most recently in California then Vancouver — where he hadn’t been in the 15 years since his university soccer team was in the national championship — McCarthy still finds Lauper’s music irresistible.

“I’m still humming it every night when I walk away from the theatre… “Great score! Beautiful arrangements!” It’s taxing to the voice, he says. “This show is written for Olympic athletes, for aliens,” he laughs.

As for the choreography, McCarthy the former athlete doesn’t consider himself a dancer per se. “I move well, and I have musicality. But technique, tensions, flexibility? That has to be groomed…. I took my first ballet lesson at 24.”

Ballet slippers are not the footwear of choice for Kinky Boots anyhow. McCarthy dances in gorgeous size-10 thigh-highs, “custom-made by a little Italian guy in midtown Manhattan for my feet and my feet only: a beautiful luxury. What’s not to love?”

For the purposes of real life offstage, McCarthy does have a couple of pairs of off-the-rack boots, including a “black combat pair from L.A. that make me feel like a rock star.” And he bought high-top sneakers in Japan to which he’s very attached.

He’s looking forward to Edmonton. This is a Canuck who spent a summer working at Tekarra Lodge in Jasper during his university years. “I served breakfast in the morning and cleaned rooms in the afternoon.”

Bonus: “I’m a huge Oilers fans, from the early Messier-Kurri days…. I have to start educating the cast!”

“This isn’t a hard job,” says McCarthy, who loves “the living minimally” that touring demands. And then there’s the show itself. “People jumping and screaming? It’s quite moving. Not only do we get to do what we love, we get to truly affect people!”

Kinky Boots comes wearing “a beautiful message that anyone can understand!”

PREVIEW

Kinky Boots

Broadway Across Canada

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: Tuesday through Feb. 19

Tickets: 1-855-985-5000 or ticketmaster.ca

   

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