Billy Porter Kicks Up His Kinky Boots, Wearing the Role of a Lifetime
By Harry Haun
After dutifully paying his dues for over 20 years, Billy Porter gets his first shot at carrying a Broadway show — and he does it in heels.
Billy Porter landed big-time on Broadway as Teen Angel, doing a single-scene cameo in the first Grease revival, lifting his falsetto famously with "Beauty School Dropout."
Now look at him! He's, decidedly, a "Beauty School Drop-In," glammed up to the nth degree, wafting across the stage like a cross-dresser's fantasia in chiffon and sequins and — did I forget to mention? — Kinky Boots of red-hot shiny, leather.
This would be Lola (last name: irrelevant), a drag-queen cabaret chanteuse who changes the tune of a traditional, family-owned men's shoe factory in Northampton with a little deviant diversification: How about, suggests Lola to the failing firm, something a transvestite can kick up his heels in — without snapping a strap (just because those straps were made for, duh, women)? So it is, with Lola at the drawing boards dispensing inspiration with the stroke of a pen, that Price & Son gets a healthy upswing in business and avoids the elephant's graveyard where it was staggering.
All of the above actually happened. The events were first reported in a charming 2005 British-film sleeper by director Julian Jarrold, and now they are musically reiterated for the stage by adapter Harvey Fierstein and a Broadway-debuting songwriter named Cyndi Lauper. Jerry Mitchell, a Tony-winning expert at kick-steps and kinks (La Cage aux Folles), directed and choreographed it, and the result may well make Porter a star, even — well, you know what Lola wants — a Tony winner.
After a recent Wednesday matinee, Porter walked the length of 45th Street from 8th Avenue where he performs in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to 9th Avenue where he slumps into a booth at Five Napkin Burger and orders a small chopped salad and grilled mahi tacos that should fortify him for his second Everest of the day. "It's extremely tiring," he allows, "but energizing at the same time because I love doing it."
As force-of-nature roles go, Lola literally and emotionally comes in all the colors of the rainbow, but — bottom line — she's the silver lining Porter has been looking for this last, "lost" decade when he was "reduced" to writing and directing to survive.
"She's a three-dimensional human being. That's what was lacking in roles offered me at the start. When I came to town in the late '80s, I had this version of myself that's explosive and fun and over-the-top. I had something nobody else could do — I sang in a way that separated me — and, when you're trying to get noticed, you play your trump card. Mine got me Grease. I was the guy who sang like Jennifer Hudson. In fact, Jennifer Holliday replaced me in that show. If you do something like that, they pigeon-hole you as a clown, and your humanity disappears from your options."
Why brave? "I'm gay, black and Christian, and I've been out for years and years — all that comes with its own set of issues — but, when you add on top of that 'Oh, I want to put on a dress' — that's something I'd never, in my own life, have the courage to do."
Not that he hasn't scoped out the drag scene in his 22 years of New York gay clubs, and not that he can't quote from "Paris Is Burning," Jennie Livingston's documentary on the New York ball culture of the '80s. "I always said if I played a drag queen, I'd want to create a template with the realness they talk about in "Paris Is Burning."
"Lola is everything that anybody in this business could dream. It's a tour de force. I get to sing Cyndi Lauper music so it's written in the style where I thrive. I am able to sing authentically in the style that's been written while being an actor and acting my way through the lyric at the same time."
Because of (or, maybe, in spite of) his newness and his realness, Porter comes on runway-ready — a contemporary, spectacularly glamorous Lola. "It takes a village," he admits, modestly passing proper credit onto wig designer John Marquette, makeup designer Randy Houston Mercer and, above all, costume (and shoe!) designer Gregg Barnes, who keeps the character constantly nodding to divas past and present.
When the light first finds Lola, smoldering in hot red, she's Beyonce; a short-skirted blue number is meant to be a bow to Mary J. Blige; her Whitney Houston moment is an 11 o'clock number with flowing veils that look like a goddess sacrifice is going on. Ironically, his most shocking outfit — audiences gasp! — is a man's business suit.
Best of all is the way Lola says sex — SAAAAAX, with dragon fire spewing forth. Now, how's that done again, Billy? "It's a combination of all the Pentecostal preachers and gospel singers that I grew up with — plus Liza Minnelli and a bit of Sean Connery."
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