Kinky Boots, the Tony Awarding winning musical now at the Hobby Center, is a show with dazzling dance numbers performed by women and men, lots of men, wearing six inch heels, but after meeting Kinky Boots star Darius Harper and his star dresser Mikey Piscitelli and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the production, I’ve discovered the greatest dance of all might be one the audience never sees.
While the aerobatic, shimmying drag queens and factory workers sing and dance the two and half hours away on stage, backstage a particular kind of tango happens between Harper and Piscitelli.
Harper plays night club singer Lola and her alter ego Simon (and in some scenes Simon and his alter ego Lola) who is hired by the show’s other main character Charlie Price to design those kinky boots.
All together he wears 13 different looks, eight different pairs of shoes, four wigs and needs five makeup changes.
The show, based on the 2005 movie, contains a classic oddball underdog story at its core, as Charlie attempts to save the failing family shoe factory by finding a new untapped niche market. After a chance meeting with Lola, he soon realizes that unrealized market, men who wear glittering, towering heels, is staring (down at) him right in the face.
The Backstage Show
During the show Harper goes through major transformations from one scene to the next, from full queen regalia to a professional trained boxer in the ring. All together he wears 13 different looks, eight different pairs of shoes, four wigs and needs five makeup changes.
The only way any actor could make it through is with lots of behind the scenes help. And if real backstage life were just like the musical onstage, this would be time to cue the catchy “this could be the start of a great partnership” music because this would be the moment to reveal Mikey Piscitelli, Spring native who 10 years ago went off to New York with Broadway dreams and is now back again as the star dresser doing his own part to make audiences believe in Lola.
Sometimes they get a few minutes to make a change, sometimes only seconds. The frantic changes offstage are their own choreography.
Piscitelli’s duties begin three or four hours before every performance as he thoroughly checks and prepares all 13 of Lola/Simon’s looks. Some of the delicate costumes, like a show stopping hand-beaded red number need constant maintenance. Then during the performance, Piscitelli has to be there at all times to get Harper in and out of these dramatically different looks. Sometimes they get a few minutes to make a change, sometimes only seconds. Piscitelli explained that the frantic changes offstage are their own choreography.
“It’s like a separate, lovely show that only we have the privilege of seeing every night,” says Piscitelli, and then draws a connection between his role, and all the backstage crews' responsibilities, and a major message of Kinky Boots.
“Every show has people doing all sorts of jobs to make the show happen, but with this show I think it’s very special because it’s all about taking pride about whatever you do in life and doing it very well,” Piscitelli says. “Everything all adds up to make the whole picture. You don’t see me during the night but you see my work on him and I try to bring pride to everything I do.”
A Unique Partnership
A star dresser who goes with a musical is a rare position these days. Most traveling productions use local crew in every city. But Harper feels Kinky Boots in particular needs a permanent dresser.
“It’s essentially for a show like this that has such expensive costumes, difficult costumes to work with, quick changes,” Harper says. “It’s important to have someone who knows the show in and out who can govern what happens with the locals and oversee the changes.”
"This poor guy gets kneed in the face sometimes; his fingers get chewed up from the boots, but he’s so gracious and so amazing. I truly couldn’t do it without him.”
Later, as Harper gave me a quick tour of Lola’s wigs, he admitted how reassuring it is for him to have Piscitelli as a constant as they travel from city to city.
“It’s very personally,” he says. “They see you naked, literally not figuratively. You have to have a trusting relationship. I like to be self-sufficient with my costumes but with this show there’s no way I could. So I have to give power to someone else and trust. This poor guy gets kneed in the face sometimes; his fingers get chewed up from the boots, but he’s so gracious and so amazing. I truly couldn’t do it without him.”
And how does Piscitelli feel being back home? He says that with the show in Houston, he felt like he’s come full circle.
“All the theater I saw growing up was here or Jones Hall or the Alley Theater,” Piscitelli admits. “I didn’t see a Broadway show until I moved to New York. I used to stand outside that stage door waiting for autographs.
"I thought I’ve never be a part of that kind of stuff, but now I’m walking in and dressing the star. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Kinky Boots runs at the Hobby Center through Sunday.