In 2005, the UK film Kinky Boots became a cult hit in the US and seven years later a stage musical version of the movie debuted in Chicago and then moved to Broadway on April 4th, 2013, with Stark Sands and Billy Porter in the lead roles of Charlie and Lola, respectively. The show came to Broadway with middling reviews but became a hit, eventually earning a season-high 13 Tony nominations and winning six, including Best Actor in a Musical for Porter, Best Score for Cyndi Lauper (the first solo female to win in the category), and Best Musical. A national tour began in 2014 and the show eventually closed out its Broadway run on April 7th, 2019.

Kinky Boots is now wowing audiences at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, the first regional theatre to produce the show since the Broadway run ended. And let me tell you, if you’ve never seen the show, put on your kinkiest boots and run to Toby’s. For the uninitiated, the story is based on true events. A young man who wants nothing to do with his family shoe business finds himself the heir to the company when his father dies unexpectedly. Finding the company is teetering on bankruptcy, Charlie Price has to attend to the task of handing out two-week notices to the employees he’s known since his childhood. None of them are taking him seriously, even though their major account has been returning all of their product and canceling orders.

Through a chance encounter with a performer named Lola (Charlie was trying to defend her from some thugs) that resulted in the heel of her boot getting broken, Charlie gets to know a little more about Lola and her choice of footwear that is not built to handle the size and weight of a man. Still struggling to keep the company afloat, and driving a wedge between himself and his fiancee, Charlie hits upon the idea of producing a new product to serve a niche market. And what’s more niche than making boots for drag queens? Charlie offers to make Lola (who later reveals his name is Simon) a designer, but they need to get some prototypes made pronto for a fashion show in Milan. But can Charlie’s workers accept Lola and make their deadline?

Kinky Boots is a fantastic show with a fantastic book by Harvey Fierstein and a wonderful score by Cyndi Lauper that moves the story forward. I have seen the national tour but I have to say that the production at Toby’s is the better production. Not that I didn’t enjoy the touring show, but Kinky Boots actually benefits greatly from Toby’s in-the-round presentation. The intimacy of the space really allows you to connect emotionally with the performers because you can see their faces clearly and you can feel what they’re feeling. This worked so well for Mamma Mia and it works again for this show.

There is a large cast that includes some faces familiar to Toby’s audiences, including David Bosley-Reynolds, MaryKate Brouillet, Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, David James, Heather Beck, and Coby Kay Callahan, but most of their roles are smaller this time around. There are quite a few newcomers to Toby’s in this production as well and they all mesh together beautifully, especially in the group numbers. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Lola’s Angels who perform flawlessly in drag for the entire show. And a big yaaaas queen to Michael Mattocks, whose vocals during the boxing match scene were stunning. Each and every cast member from the smaller character roles to the ensemble are an important element that gives the show its drive and energy. It doesn’t matter how small the role, each and every performer makes their mark.

That being said, there are three actors who do anchor the show. At first, Jana Bernard’s Lauren seems like she’s just one of the supporting characters in the shoe factory, with her brash Cockney accent and obvious crush on Charlie. But Lauren begins to move to the center of the stage after Charlie promotes her and her crush for him develops even more although she knows Charlie is in a relationship. Bernard nicely balances the goofiness of the character with her more down-to-earth qualities that come in handy at a moment when Charlie thinks he’s about to lose everything. Bernard has a powerful voice and a strong stage presence and is destined for stardom.

Matt Hirsh is a Toby’s regular, recently appearing in Grease and Newsies, and while he was very good in those shows, I feel like this is the first time I’ve really seen Hirsh. The role of Charlie is a meaty one and Hirsh gives it his all, laying all of the excitement, all the heartache, the despair and ultimately joy right there on the stage. He just knocked my socks off with his powerful voice that nicely handles Lauper’s sometimes rock-inspired music (and not having a powerful enough voice was my one issue with the actor who played the role in the touring production), often hitting and holding some high rock star notes. And his performance was authentic. I felt his words cut deep as he lashes out at Lola when everything appears to be going south. As an audience we want to tell him to not hurt his friends with his words, but we also root for him to redeem himself. Hirsh makes us look into ourselves, knowing there have been times when we’ve said things we wish we hadn’t, so it’s rewarding when he gets to right his wrongs. And we are right there with him. It is a terrific performance.

Of course, while Charlie is just as important a character as Lola, Lola is the centerpiece and DeCarlo Raspberry is simply divine. Raspberry recently won a Helen Hayes award for his performance at Toby’s as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, and while that role is showy, this role and this performance is showstopping. From the moment we meet Lola in her opening number “The Land of Lola,” you know she is a force to be reckoned with. Lola stops the show again with the sizzling “Sex is in the Heel” and then rips our hearts out late in the second act with the melancholy ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart.” As written by Fierstein, Lola is over-the-top when she needs to be, but she’s never a joke. Lola / Simon is always a very real person and Raspberry breathes life into the character. We feel the friendship as it develops between Lola and Charlie, and we feel that pain when Charlie lashes out, especially in that last solo of Lola’s (that also comes with a huge gut-punch at the end of the number that almost had me sobbing out loud). Raspberry can handle the disco-inspired numbers just as well as that ballad and he makes Lola and Simon someone you’d want to be friends with. It is a bravura performance and if Raspberry doesn’t get all the awards this year, then there is no justice in this world.

Of course, great performances don’t just develop out of thin air, they are nurtured along by the director during the rehearsal process, and just as he did with bringing the characters to the forefront in Mamma Mia, Mark Minnick has certainly given his stars much guidance into finding their characters and making them real people. Not an easy task with a large cast but his work with Raspberry, Hirsh, and Bernard is exemplary. And the choreography with David Singleton is lively and energetic, allowing the Angels to strut their stuff and the entire cast to get in on the action for the final number that will have the audience clapping along. I’ve seen plenty of shows at Toby’s over the last couple of years and Kinky Boots is now one of my top shows with Mamma Mia and Young Frankenstein. (And this is the first time I’ve seen a standing ovation for any show, and it was richly deserved.)

Janine Sunday’s costume designs run from the mundane for the factory workers to the fabulous for Lola and the Angels, and the scenic design by David A. Hopkins utilizes the space at Toby’s well, even with some rather large pieces that are effortlessly rolled on to the stage by the expert stage crew. If I have one teeny-tiny complaint about Hopkins’ lighting design, it’s that the final number, “Raise You Up / Just Be,” was really crying out for a mirror ball. The orchestra was also on its game, performing a score that’s more pop and rock influenced than your typical Broadway show, and after a little adjustment after the opening number, the sound was nicely balanced so that the singing was never over-powered by the music.

The dinner menu for the show is also delicious as usual with items like curried cream potatoes, stuffed shells, baked fish, bangers and peppers, and more, plus the special show drink, “The Milan,” a frozen raspberry / lemon concoction that has a nice zing to it, and is available in a non-alcoholic version. And you get to keep the special show branded glass it comes in!

If you’ve never seen Kinky Boots but have some reservations about a show that features men in female frocks, you are the audience for this show. At one point Lola challenges a bigoted factory worker to accept someone for who they are … and it didn’t necessarily have to be Lola … and that should be a challenge accepted by seeing the show with the ultimate message of “Just Be.” Kinky Boots might just seem like two-and-a-half hours of entertainment, but you may come away with a new outlook on life and those around you. Fierstein and Lauper wrote a show from the heart, and Toby’s production is sure to touch your heart so don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

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Chuck Duncan
Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio