In 1993, bankruptcy threatened Northamptonshire, England’s nearly century-old shoe factory, WJ Brookes. Steve Pateman ran the firm for his still-living father, Richard, but only 21 employees remained. Pateman received a call from the owner of Laces in Folkestone, a shoe store catering to cross-dressers and drag queens. Pateman was asked whether WJ Brookes could produce high-heeled boots capable of supporting the weight of a male wearer. Accepting the challenge, Pateman bought machinery to produce a “Divine Footwear” line. Jobs were saved. BBC Two broadcast the story in 1999 as part of its documentary series Trouble at the Top, dubbing WJ Brookes the “Kinky Boot Factory.”
In 2006, that account was adapted into an American-British dramedy movie, Kinky Boots, which earned middling reviews and $10 million worldwide. Greater success came six years later, when producers teamed director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Legally Blonde the Musical) with Tony Award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) and composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper to convert Kinky Boots into a stage musical. Pateman became Charlie Price, whose salvation of his dead father’s firm is inspired by “Lola,” a fictional drag queen devised as an amalgam of satisfied customers. Chicago tryouts led to Broadway in 2013. The result was a hit that won Tonys for best actor (Billy Porter as Lola), choreography, musical and score. It’s touring through The Washington Center this month but omits the fact that in 2000, when sales slumped again, WJ Brookes shut its doors and Pateman found work as a firefighter.
“To bring this show to Olympia,” says Jill Barnes, executive director for The Washington Center, “is truly an exciting opportunity for everyone here locally who appreciates glitz, glam, music and flair.” It’s a dazzling extravaganza that makes challenging realities seem more fabulous — and really, isn’t that what Divine Footwear was all about?
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27