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Behind Broadway’s Kinky Boots Is a World of Clockwork Precision

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Feb. 12, 2016 - Reproduced by permission

Crowds file in to attend a Wednesday matinee performance of Kinky Boots at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Crowds file in to attend a Wednesday matinee performance of Kinky Boots at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

We’re trying to give the audience a particular emotional experience,” says John Gray, production stage manager at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. “To give them that, the actors have to do their work unimpeded. And everything we do backstage is trying to feed that.”

Theatregoers see the magic, but not the machine behind it. At a recent matinee performance of Kinky Boots – the hit Broadway musical about a drag queen, a failing shoe factory and some game-changing high-heeled footwear – The Globe and Mail went behind the curtain to witness a world of clockwork precision and industrious but miraculously orderly backstage goings on.

For a performance that begins at 2 p.m., three managers and 31 crew members have already been at work for hours, checking the more than 260 lighting instruments, testing 1,300 light bulbs, teasing every wig and arranging the dozens of hand props just so. By the time the audience is allowed into the lobby an hour before the curtain is raised, the show, in a very real sense, is already well under way.

Located in a small corner just off stage left, John Gray, production stage manager for the Mirvish Production of Kinky Boots, is able to keep an eye on the show via monitors during the matinee showing on Jan 27 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Located in a small corner just off stage left, John Gray, production stage manager for the Mirvish Production of Kinky Boots, is able to keep an eye on the show via monitors during the matinee showing on Jan 27 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The production manager is the show’s maestro, conducting the technical workings from a command centre tucked into a corner just off stage left. Gray wears a headset to communicate with crew supervisors. Monitors show the action on stage, and a thick binder holds the script and the hundreds of lighting and technical cues. At 1:30 p.m., the crew and 26 actors are given their 30-minute warning, just as the audience begins pouring into the auditorium from the lobby. A stopwatch is used to monitor the running time of every performance. “Time is everything,” Gray says. “There is a rhythm to the production, and we have to honour that rhythm. It’s not going to wait for us.”

Andre Anthony during his first performance as Lola. Anthony is a swing actor who plays one or more roles in the show. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Andre Anthony during his first performance as Lola. Anthony is a swing actor who plays one or more roles in the show. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Since the Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots began its run at the Royal Alex in June, the lead role of the drag queen Lola has been handled by Alan Mingo Jr. But for this matinee performance, Andre Anthony is covering for Mingo Jr., who’s off sick. But if Anthony is stepping into Mingo’s shoes, he is not filling his kinky boots. The footwear is custom-made in New York, and the understudy’s feet were traced and legs were measured for boots made just for him. Anthony’s spotlight moment happens when the stage manager cues the lighting team via an intercom system. “This is live theatre, so you never know,” the character Lola says. But, in reality, nothing at all is left to chance.

Vanessa Sears (Nicola) adjusts Kaden Stephen's (Young Lola) tie backstage. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Vanessa Sears (Nicola) adjusts Kaden Stephen's (Young Lola) tie backstage. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Eleven-year-old Kaden Stephen, one of two actors playing Lola as a child, is seconds from making his entrance. Attached to the child actor is a chaperone, one of the dozens of people backstage. Actors enter and exit, crew members push scenery into and out of view and a prop man quietly and meticulously arranges hundreds of shoes. At one point, stage manager Gray notices that a mobile set of stairs has a wobble to it. With his headphone mic, he first notifies an assistant to alert the actors to be careful on the steps. Then he reports the problem to a carpenter, who will fix it before the next performance.

Cellist Amy Laing warms up before a Wednesday matinee performance of 'Kinky Boots.' Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There’s a whole world underneath the stage. It’s called a “trap room,” and at the Royal Alex, it’s a tight space for sound gear, change areas and a wig station. The musicians are in the orchestra pit, working to a “click track” rhythm and with in-ear monitors to keep in time with the actions on stage. The sound man and a mixing board are upstairs, at the back of the house, where the volume levels of the actors’ wireless microphones are manipulated constantly, on the fly. The sound man is a trained professional, but it seems that many theatregoers fancy themselves as experts on audio. Sound issues are the most frequent post-show complaints heard by the stage manager.

Wearing thigh high red boots, actor Graham Scott Fleming (Charlie) leaves the change room to go to backstage for the final number during a Wednesday matinee performance of Kinky Boots at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Feb 3 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Wearing thigh high red boots, actor Graham Scott Fleming (Charlie) leaves the change room to go to backstage for the final number during a Wednesday matinee performance of Kinky Boots at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Feb 3 2016. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

No, this isn’t a wardrobe malfunction. Actor Graham Scott Fleming, in the lead role of Charlie, is quickly heading from a change room to the stage, where his thigh-high, ruby-red kicks will be on full display. Once the cast sings the final number Raise You Up/Just Be and after the applause subsides, the stage manager thanks the cast and crew on a backstage paging system, and reminds them of the next show’s start time. A report of the just-completed performance will be sent to some 50 people at the Royal Alex and at the producer’s office in New York. The evening show is less than four hours away. The clock is ticking.