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‘Kinky Boots’ puts its best foot forward at Paramount

Not as subversive as it used to be, the drag-themed musical still delights in Aurora thanks to two appealing leads and a large, joyous ensemble.

Drag queen Lola (Michael Wordly, left) helps Charlie (Devin DeSantis) overhaul the family shoe factory in “Kinky Boots.”
Liz Lauren

In the nine(ish) years since “Kinky Boots” debuted in Chicago, drag queens have gone as mainstream as reality TV. Lola, the leading queen of the Tony-winning musical by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics), doesn’t have the shock value she did back in the years before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” had franchises in five different countries.

The increasing ubiquity (and marketability) of drag changes the context of “Kinky Boots,” running through Oct. 17 in an appropriately extravagant, way-larger-than-life production at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Based on the 2005 movie of the same name, the musical tale of Lola, a London drag queen who saves a working-class shoe factory, isn’t as inherently subversive as it used to be. But as directed by Trent Stork for Paramount’s cavernous stage, “Kinky Boots” remains an irrepressible delight. Lauper’s music and lyrics evoke all the feels and probably some you didn’t know you had. Fierstein’s book fails its non-drag leading ladies, but as the story moves from factory floor to fashion show, it engulfs the audience in its exuberance nonetheless.

Crucially, Stork’s ensemble (33 strong!) isn’t just a group of capable singer-actor-dancers. They radiate the joy and energy that ultimately defines the show, committing full-throttle to a production that’s all about finding your truth and living it without shame or apology. Whether you’re a drag queen or no, that’s a message worth heeding. Wisely, “Kinky Boots” doesn’t lead with Lola (Michael Wordly). First, we meet Charlie (Devin DeSantis), the son of a shoe factory owner, determined not to follow his father into the business of brogues. In the dun-and-drab world of the factory, Charlie is faced with firing the workers who have devoted their lives to it, even as towers of unsold inventory grow ever taller.

But after a meet-cute between Charlie and Lola (Charlie attempts to save Lola from would-be assailants. She does not need his help.), Lola gets a full spotlight. When we first see her clearly, she’s literally glowing, statuesque in golden heels, a shimmering, fringed body suit and a mug painted for the gods. The moment is more about celebration and less about shock than it used to be, but that’s not to the production’s disadvantage. The plot launches as Lola and Charlie come up with a plan to save the factory by ditching traditional shoes and instead making unicorn-and-glitter footwear fantasies capable of supporting a man, even on the highest, sharpest stiletto.

“The sex is in the heel,” according to Lauper’s lyrics in the kicky, eponymous song. Anyone beholding Wordly stomping the stage like the love child of Naomi Campbell and Andre Leon Talley slaying the catwalk would have to agree. Wordly has a lightness to his movements, even in six-inch heels and an even taller wig. He wears the drag rather than the other way around, which is no small achievement given the exaggerated femininity that drag often presents.

As Charlie, DeSantis is stuck playing the straight man to the much-more interesting Lola. Charlie is also a jerk sometimes: He mortgages his home without telling his fiancé, Nicola (Emilie Lynn), and upends their plans to move to London with little discussion. It’s a tough role to empathize with, but when DeSantis finally reaches the second act barn-burner “The Soul of a Man,” he serves up an anthem powerful enough to make you almost forget Charlie’s clueless self-absorption.

Fierstein does not do as well with the supporting women’s roles. Nicola exists primarily as a cold, materialistic, faithless foil to the loyal, small-town sweetheart Lauren (Sara Reincke) who falls for Charlie. Reincke brings down the house with the hilariously universal “The History of Wrong Guys,” but one song can’t add depth to a character written with hardly any.

Stork’s designers do the show proud. Co-choreographers Michael George and Isaiah Silvia-Chandley instill humor and exquisite artistry into the dance numbers, especially the nightclub numbers where Lola and her “angels” are featured. Set designers Kevin Depinet and Christopher Rhoton create a credible factory floor for Price and Son, turning the neon to 11 when the action moves to the club where Lola performs. Costume designer Ryan Park’s workaday garb of the factory is spot-on, the gowns and silhouettes Lola and her backup dancers rock are spectacular. And keep an eye on those angels. They may be backup dancers, but they demand your attention with the same magnetic charisma as their boss.

Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.