BEREA, Ohio — Landing the academic premiere of the 2013 best musical “Kinky Boots” is reason enough to kick up your heels.
But last Friday, the cast and crew at Baldwin Wallace University had even more reason to celebrate. Watching their sold-out production at the Kleist Center for Art and Drama was Jerry Mitchell, the director and choreographer of the Broadway hit.
Mitchell made the trek to see the show after learning from friend and Baldwin Wallace associate professor of acting Brennan Murphy that BW had won the rights to stage the first college production of the celebrated musical. (Murphy also served as dialect coach, helping student actors master a host of tricky British accents.)
The verdict? “The show is fantastic,” said Mitchell in a phone call the Monday after the show. “And the kids are sensational.” This critic agrees.
“Kinky Boots,” adapted from the 2005 film of the same name, concerns the unlikely partnership between Charlie, a young man struggling to keep the family’s failing shoe factory afloat after the death of his father, and Lola, a drag queen in need of heels that can hold up to the demands of her zealous floor show, a sequined spectacle in which she is backed by a half-dozen corseted, limber divas known as “Angels.”
(Mitchell cast BW music theater program alum Kyle Post as “Widdi Bantour,” an Angel fond of thigh-high stiletto boots the colors of the Union Jack. Post is one of six BW grads to have appeared in the Broadway production or in the first national tour.)
When the Price and Son company begins manufacturing fetish footwear for boys who like to dress as girls, the small-town factory workers come face to face with Lola and her Angels. This culture clash is at the heart of the irresistible, life-affirming musical. Behind the laughs and Cyndi Lauper’s mercurial Tony-winning score — songs are poppy, fizzy dance numbers one minute and soaring, heartbreaking ballads the next — “Kinky Boots” is about accepting yourself, and others, for who they are.
“The message of the show is universal, and it’s so important to me personally,” said Mitchell. “I grew up in a small town in southwestern Michigan, so it’s not unlike Ohio. [When] I go home, I’m surrounded by people who could use a lesson from ‘Kinky Boots.’ ”
Mitchell was struck by how the audience reaction to the BW show mirrored that of a Broadway crowd. They laughed and applauded and gasped in the same places.
“I’m sure that a lot of that is the structure and the writing [of the show],” Mitchell said, tipping his hat to book writer Harvey Fierstein.
“But it’s also because it is in the hands of people who understand the story and are able to translate it. I thought they did a brilliant job of it.”
Those people are director Victoria Bussert, head of BW’s music theater program, and her production team including choreographer Gregory Daniels, music director Matthew Webb and costume designer Charlotte Yetman, who deserves a special click of the heels for her scrumptious, otherworldly boot designs in shiny red patent leather and more.
“I’ve seen college productions of other shows that I’ve worked on, and money doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great production, but they certainly didn’t skimp,” said Mitchell.
That’s also on the nose. I caught Mitchell’s Broadway production before it landed six Tony awards, including one for Mitchell’s inspired choreography. That show was perfection, from the top of its towering wigs to the toes of its kinky kicks.
Watching the BW version, I had to remind myself I wasn’t back at Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre, taking it in for the first time, from the sets to the performances: The mesmerizing Nick Drake as Lola, Charlie H. Ray as Charlie and Kailey Boyle as Lauren, a clever employee with a secret crush on the boss. (“I’m following all of them on Instagram,” Mitchell said, “because I feel like, eventually, somewhere down the road, I’m going to be working with them.”)
But it wasn’t just the bones of the BW production that got Mitchell’s attention, nor was it its abundantly talented cast.
“I think that the enthusiasm the kids had for the work was what won me over, more than anything,” he said. “Not only were they great singers, dancers and actors, but they really had a grasp on the material. However Vicky was able to get that in their souls — I felt that was really the big payoff for me.”
And that wasn’t Mitchell’s only revelation after visiting Berea to take in “Kinky Boots.”
“I think I’ve hired over a dozen people from Baldwin Wallace,” he said. “Not just for ‘Kinky Boots’ but for my other shows.” (That’s “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde,” to name a few.)
“It was just kind of surprising. I had no idea.”
That’s OK, Jerry. We did.
“Kinky Boots” continues through Sunday at the Mainstage Theatre, Kleist Center for Art and Drama, 95 E. Bagley Road, Berea; bwmt.bw.edu/performances/kinky-boots. Although the show is sold out, patrons who come to the theater and queue up in the standby line have been able to get seats to day-of performances.