Get ‘Kinky’ at joyous new Music Guild show

Get ‘Kinky’ at joyous new Music Guild show

The new Quad City Music Guild show “Kinky Boots” is deeply meaningful and personal for its star, Keenen Wilson, who finds parallels in its story to his own life.

Based on a 2005 film of the same name, “Kinky Boots” is the big-hearted musical that premiered in Chicago in 2012, and ran on Broadway from 2013 to 2019, winning six Tonys including Best Musical, the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre album and London’s Olivier Award for Best Musical.

Rehearsing “Kinky Boots” at Moline’s Prospect Park theater are (L-R) Myka Walljasper, Dave Edwards, Adrienne Evans, Keenen Wilson, Pam Cantrell and Luke Vermiere.
Rehearsing “Kinky Boots” at Moline’s Prospect Park theater are (L-R) Myka Walljasper, Dave Edwards, Adrienne Evans, Keenen Wilson, Pam Cantrell and Luke Vermiere.

It features a joyous, Tony-winning score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper, and a hilarious, uplifting book by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein. Billy Porter won a Best Actor Tony Award for his portrayal of Lola, embodied in Moline by Wilson (a queer Black man in real life).

“Growing up as a queer Black kid, there were many expectations I thought I had to live up to in order to be a ‘real’ man,” Wilson posted on the Music Guild Facebook page. “The moment I let those expectations go and started living in my truth, was the moment I found me. It became the moment I felt like I could truly breathe.

“The moment Lola sings about that moment in her life, it hit me like a ton of bricks because it was the first time someone in a show expressed my actual life through music,” he recalled.

In “Kinky Boots,” Charlie Price (Dave Edwards) has reluctantly inherited his father’s shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father’s legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola (born Simon), a flamboyant drag queen in need of some sturdy stilettos.

As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair find that they have more in common than they realized…and discover that when you change your mind, you can change your whole world.

Wilson as the drag queen Lola in “Kinky Boots.”
Wilson as the drag queen Lola in “Kinky Boots.”

Wilson said Monday at the Music Guild theater that he was very sensitive as a little kid growing up in Davenport, and took karate from ages 9 to 13 to “toughen him up.” (In “Kinky,” Simon is a boxer.)

“I didn’t grow up with my father around, so it was a different dynamic with my mom,” he said. In “Kinky Boots,” Simon has a strained relationship with his father.

“As much as he wants to live up to his father’s expectations, it’s never gonna happen,” Wilson said. “For Simon to live in his truth, it causes that strain. But at the end of the day, you have to pick your happiness over anyone else’s.”

In real life, Wilson came out as gay to his parents at 21, and they were “surprisingly supportive,” he said. “I was very, very nervous to come out. There was some resistance, but I think it was just lack of knowledge on their end versus not wanting to have me be a part of their life.”

Keenen Wilson struts as Lola on the Music Guild stage.
Keenen Wilson struts as Lola on the Music Guild stage.

Wilson has performed in drag at a couple Haus of Ruckus shows. When all dolled up as Lola, “I feel fabulous,” he said.

He played the principal role of Collins in Music Guild’s “Rent” a year ago, as the boyfriend of the drag queen Angel (Gary Mayfield), an actor who also is in “Kinky Boots” as one of Lola’s “angels.”

There are some similarities between Angel and Lola, Wilson said.

“I feel like they always want to bring light into people’s lives,” he said, noting Angel is more flamboyant, compared to Lola.

Lola and Charlie really connect in the story and share a bond, working together to save the family factory.

“Especially in today’s world, it’s about how you connect with people and Charlie really does connect with Lola and sees where she’s coming from,” Wilson said.

At first Charlie stereotypes Lola “out of pure ignorance,” Edwards said.

Director Kelsey Walljasper noted that several characters do discriminate against Lola and her friends, out of fear and ignorance.

Bradley Jensen, left, Keenen Wilson, Topher Elliott and Makis Witt.
Bradley Jensen, left, Keenen Wilson, Topher Elliott and Makis Witt.

She has directed other shows in the area, including Spotlight Theatre’s “Spitfire Grill” in 2019, but this is her first Music Guild directing gig.

“There’s a lot of stories in ‘Kinky Boots’ I felt needed to be shared,” Walljasper said Monday. “One of my favorite things to do with theater is to share stories, and it’s got a lot of really good ones. They’re very important and relevant, especially today. They resonate with me, a lot of my friends and people in the show.”

Kelsey is married to one of the principal performers, Myka Walljasper, both among several openly LGBTQ members of the “Kinky” cast and crew. Kelsey was stage manager for “Rent,” where Myka played the lesbian Joanne.

“Kinky Boots” features Pam Cantrell, left, Topher Elliott and Myka Walljasper.
“Kinky Boots” features Pam Cantrell, left, Topher Elliott and Myka Walljasper.

“I can trust her as an actor, and I think I would do that regardless of if she was my spouse or not,” Kelsey said. “She’s wonderful in herself. It’s been fun.”

Similar, different from ‘Rent’

While similar to Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning 1996 musical “Rent” (featuring prominent LGBTQ characters and overarching theme of love), “Kinky Boots” is different in crucial ways.

“ ‘Rent’ was a beautiful show, but the difference between the two is, ‘Rent’ focuses on the grief of the LGBTQ community and the loss they suffered through the AIDS epidemic,” said Adrienne Evans (who also was in “Rent”), who here plays Lauren, Charlie’s girlfriend.

Pam Cantrell, left, Myka Walljasper and Adrienne Evans.
Pam Cantrell, left, Myka Walljasper and Adrienne Evans.

“While ‘Kinky Boots’ isn’t so much about the struggling of the queer community, more so the joy within them. ‘Kinky Boots’ really celebrates the LGBTQ community, though there is some struggle within – it really focuses on overcoming that,” she said.

The drama in the story comes not only in the challenges of Lola and Charlie, living up to their fathers’ expectations, as well as keeping the factory alive. It shows how diverse people band together to do that, which is a metaphor for the Music Guild cast and crew all working toward the singular goal of putting on the best possible show.

Keenen Wilson as Lola and Dave Edwards as Charlie.
Keenen Wilson as Lola and Dave Edwards as Charlie.

“It’s a metaphor for life in general,” Walljasper said. “The message of the show is ‘Just Be’ and I think at times we worry too much about other people and not focus on the things that are important. It shows when we are all working together, we don’t care so much about what someone’s doing, or how they look, our differences, and we can pull something together that’s beautiful.”

“Kinky Boots” is more relevant and vital now than at its premiere 12 years ago, she noted, in light of virulent anti-LGBTQ sentiment in laws (in Iowa and nationally).

In 2009, Iowa became just the fourth U.S. state to legalize gay marriage, and in recent years, the Iowa General Assembly has passed anti-LGBTQ measures, including in 2023, to ban the provision of any and all gender-affirming healthcare to transgender minors within Iowa, signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“I feel like back then, it just seemed less everywhere,” Walljasper said of the anti-gay climate 10 or 15 years ago. “Then it was, we want marriage equality, but now we just want to be equal. Sometimes, I feel like ‘Can you just ignore me?’”

Adrienne Evans (one of several cast members who were in spring 2023’s production of “Rent” at Guild) now plays Lauren, Charlie’s girlfriend.
Adrienne Evans (one of several cast members who were in spring 2023’s production of “Rent” at Guild) now plays Lauren, Charlie’s girlfriend.

Evans (who is lesbian in real life and engaged to be married) said “Kinky Boots” takes on more weight in this election year for the next president, and hopes they can change even one person’s mind “that drag is not a hate crime.”

“It is not offensive,” she said. “Drag is joy; drag has always been around. Drag has always entertained you.” “Kinky Boots” does a great job of expressing that joy, she added.

Evans is a fan of RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” and was thrilled to get a note from the drag queen Plasma, after her friends saw her perform last weekend.

“She said, ‘Break legs, XOXO, Plasma’,” Evans gushed. “It feels so fun for me to obsess over something other than Taylor Swift.”

More stage, more love

The new production is maintaining the extension of the stage over the orchestra pit, which was built for “Sweeney Todd” (November 2023).

“I wanted to be able to bring the audience essentially on stage with Lola as much as I could,” Walljasper said. “I like it when you are close to an audience. I felt like I didn’t want to keep Lola at a distance from them.”

The cast includes Jack Carslake as young Charlie, Antoine Richmond as young Lola, Abbey Donohoe as Nicola/Female Worker, Luke Vermeire as Don, Pam Cantrell as Trish, Michael Van Belle as George, and as Lola’s Angels — Bradley Jensen, Topher Elliot, Gary Mayfield, and Makis Witt.

Evans called Lauren very similar to herself – “a goofy gal, very quirky, odd, but also so full of love and not be afraid to like be loud. It’s just me – and I’m so beyond awkward, so to be able to do it on stage is such a gift.”

As Lauren, she sings about her history of wrong choices with men, which Evans said applied to her personal life, too.

They love that Nikki Murray returned to do makeup, after being in charge of that for “Sweeney.”

Walljasper said she’s seen four other productions of “Kinky” in person, including the Circa ’21 version in early 2020, which closed right before COVID shutdowns.

Dave Edwards and Abbey Donohoe in “Kinky Boots.”
Dave Edwards and Abbey Donohoe in “Kinky Boots.”

Dave Edwards plays Charlie, which he said is his first true “normal” role after his last colorful Guild outings, as Buddy in “Elf” in late 2022 and Beadle Bamford in “Sweeney Todd.”

“It’s strange this is the first human character,” he said of three. “Beadle is just such a far removed era; Buddy is an elf, and Charlie’s an actual, real person in the world.”

Wilson got to be honored recently at the Jeff Awards (Chicago’s version of the Tonys) for winning best ensemble for a short-run production, for last November’s “Once On This Island” musical. It ran for three weekends at Pulse Theatre Chicago. It started at a community theater, eta Creative Arts Foundation, in Chicago.

Keenen Wilson with his Jeff Award in Chicago, for being part of the ensemble in November 2023’s “Once On This Island.”
Keenen Wilson with his Jeff Award in Chicago, for being part of the ensemble in November 2023’s “Once On This Island.”

“I’m very excited to win that award,” Wilson said of the March 25 ceremony, adding this was the first time ever a musical won that category.

“Kinky Boots” has a book by Harvey Fierstein (“La Cage aux Folles,” “Torch Song Trilogy”), who has noted a change in focus between the film “about the saving of a factory” and the musical, which include “drag queens singing as they pass along the assembly line.”

He said the main difference is that the musical is, “at its core, about two young men who come from seemingly opposite worlds who figure out that they have a lot in common, beginning with the need to stand up to their dads.

Lauper and Fierstein said that, in adapting the film, they stressed themes of community and the universality of the father-son bond as vehicles to explore the issues of tolerance and self-acceptance.

Bruce Duling, left, and Dave Edwards in “Kinky Boots,” which opens Friday, April 5.
Bruce Duling, left, and Dave Edwards in “Kinky Boots,” which opens Friday, April 5.

Music Guild’s all-star crew includes assistant director Julie Hummel, music director Mitch Carter, assistant music director Katie Griswold, choreographer Shelley Cooper, set designer Mike Turczynski, costume designers Lee Mclain and Em Schwartz, lighting designer Roger Pavey, Jr., and sound designer Alexandar Richardson.

Performance dates are April 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14 — Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m, at the Prospect Park Theater, 1584 34th Ave., Moline.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under, available by calling the box office at 309.762.6610 or by visiting the QCMG website HERE.

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