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Pittsburgh's Billy Porter shines in 'Kinky Boots' New York premiere

About Alice T. Carter
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‘Kinky Boots'

Performances: Continues in an open-end run with shows every day but Monday

Admission: $77-$142

Where: Al Hirschfield Theatre, 302 West 45th St., New York City

Details: 212-239-6200 or www.kinkybootsthemusical.com


By Alice T. Carter

Published: Monday, April 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Actor Billy Porter makes a point of not reading reviews about his work.

But they are difficult to ignore when they're emblazoned on the front of the Al Hirschfield Theatre where he's performing in “Kinky Boots.”

At the moment, “Kinky Boots” is the hottest ticket on Broadway.

It's based on the 2005 movie about a drag queen named Lola who saves a shoe factory and its owner from financial disaster when he suggests the company diversify by creating a line of glamorous, high-profile and high-heeled-but-comfortable shoes for men who like to dress as women.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein teamed with director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper, who is making her Broadway debut as lyricist and composer, to transform it into a musical with Porter, a Pittsburgh native, in the starring role as Lola.

When it opened on April 4, critics reacted enthusiastically and eloquently:

• “…a score with audience-hugging charisma that performs like a pop star on Ecstasy.” The New York Times.

• “Audiences will love it to death.” Variety

• “Dazzling and joyful. Billy Porter is a force of nature.” New York Daily News

Praise like that is hard to ignore, Porter says.

“You can't get away from them. … I do read the pull quotes outside the theater,” Porter confesses. “It's nice, but I try not to take too much to heart. … Hopefully, I have a job for a long time.”

Though “Kinky Boots” is the new kid on Broadway, Porter has been strutting through the musical in 5-inch-high heels since last summer when it was in development in Chicago.

His attachment to the story goes even further back.

“I saw the movie and fell in love with it,” he says. “You can't get more crazy than (a story about) a black drag queen who saves a shoe factory.”

The former East Liberty resident has been a working performer since his graduation from Carnegie Mellon University.

He headed to New York where he made his Broadway debut as a “Miss Saigon” ensemble member.

Over the next 20 years, he worked in five more Broadway shows as well as in the Signature Theatre's highly acclaimed revival of “Angels in America” and his one-man show, “Ghetto Superstar,” at New York's Public Theater, which he also returned home to perform in at City Theatre in 2005.

But stardom and success don't always come in a neat upward trajectory.

In 1996, he recorded an album “Billy Porter” that got a lot of attention that hinted at success, but then fizzled.

During an interview in 2005, he recalled hitting the bottom a few years earlier when he was fired from his job as the voice of Audrey II, the killer plant in the 2003 Broadway revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

He remembers thinking, “Now I'm getting fired from jobs I don't even want,” he says.

“In terms of theater, I've been on the brink of superstardom for 20 years,” he says. “Even with this, I take it with a grain of salt.”

During those two decades, Porter redefined the meaning of success: “My definition has changed. I wanted to be a star, be a success,” he says. “But the business is about longevity. Showing up every day to do something you love, that's where your success lies.”

Soon after he began working in the January 2012 “Kinky Boots” workshop, Porter began to suspect this show might be a success.

“It was just really good. … It felt good, like all the pieces were coming together from the music Cyndi has written to Harvey Fierstein's book to Jerry Mitchell's concept. It felt like this could be the one,” Porter says. “But you just don't know in this business. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

The realization that the show was a hit came during the opening-night party.

“It was wonderful, glorious, fun,” he says. “Broadway is still one of the last genres where you go to the party and no one is saying they are waiting for the reviews — but everyone is waiting for the reviews.”

A veteran of Broadway opening-night parties, Porter knows how to judge a show's success without reading a newspaper or doing a cell-phone check of media websites.

“If the reviews are good, the music gets louder. If they're not, the party starts thinning out by 10:30,” Porter says. “I knew (the reviews) must have been good because the party kept going until the guards kicked us out at 12:30 a.m.”

Porter remains cautious about the idea that “Kinky Boots” may make him a star.

But he's enjoying the ride for as long as it lasts.

“This role coming along at this time of life has made the last 25 years of life make sense,” he says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

 

 

 
 


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