“I always say that the two most important things are the feet and the head, your wig and your shoes,” declares Gregg Barnes. “Your shoes ground you to the deck, and inform so much about movement and character. And you can have the best dress in the world but bad shoes, and it’s an epic fail.”
Barnes is known for his epic theatrical wins. The busy costume designer has clothed a garish Arabian kingdom in “Aladdin” and a Valley Girl law student who thinks pink in “Legally Blonde.” But it’s his snazzy footwear that stands out in the current Broadway hit musical “Kinky Boots.”
Coming on tour to the 5th Avenue Theatre next week, the show is a splashy, best musical Tony Award-winning hit written by Harvey Fierstein and scored by pop star Cyndi Lauper. For Barnes (a Tony nominee for his efforts), it was a designer’s dream assignment to create (among other garb) a plethora of glitz-tastic, thigh-high leather boots for a squadron of male British drag performers led by the lanky, loud-and-proud chanteuse Lola.
Since “Kinky Boots” centers on a failing English shoe factory that recovers by catering to drag artistes, fancy boots are prominent, plentiful and critical to the plot. There’s even a scene devoted to a shoe fashion show, which will make or break the struggling Price and Son — a purveyor of sensible foot gear before Lola (played here by Kyle Taylor Parker) and factory owner Charlie (Steven Booth) form an offbeat alliance.
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“I’ve never worked in a show where shoes got their own entrance,” quips the affable, New York-based Barnes, who came up with 16 different “kinky boot” designs for the drag “angels.”
There’s a signature scarlet pair which has a built-in riding crop. “In the movie, it’s made of one kind of leather,” Barnes notes. “For the stage, we used a thunderbolt of metallic red leather, some crocodile red leather, some patent leather and black piping.”
There are boots with a Union Jack flag motif, gold lamé lace-ups, a play on Scottish tartan, and, the designer’s favorite, a “fetish” pair with rhinestone-encrusted heels. “At the end of the play, a character swings the heels up into the light and they’re so shiny the audience gasps. They’re electric.”
In addition to the eye-popping boots, there are some nosebleed-high heels. For “The Land of Lola” number, drag performers wear platform “black, pewter and metallic pumps all individually designed. To the audience’s eyes the heels look treacherously high, but they are actually stocky and a safe proportion to dance in.”
To create such functional illusions, Barnes worked in close collaboration with “Kinky Boots” director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. “We had to build a show with shoes that look like you could buy them in a very high-end department store, but also serve the people who are wearing them.”
It was a multi-step process. “I usually do a costume sketch first, and in the sketch I draw my impression of the footwear. After (Jerry) approved that, I had to re-draw all the shoes in more detail for the cobbler. T.O. Dey, which makes custom shoes for Broadway shows, built most of the kinky boots.”
But it took a lot of tweaking to get exactly the right footwear. Ironically, that effort “completely mirrored” the storyline of the musical, which is based on the transformation of an actual British shoe factory.
“We made a lot of errors until we had what we knew was safe for actors to dance and jump around in,” reports Barnes. “When the actors put on the finished kinky boots for the first time it was such a joyous moment. And no one has complained, or called out of the show because they sprained a tendon or a hamstring, which makes us very happy.”
Next on Barnes’ agenda: costumes for “Something Rotten!,” a new, Broadway-bound musical the 5th Avenue will debut in Seattle next spring. Staged and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“Aladdin,” “The Book of Mormon”), it’s a faux-Shakespearean romp that takes place in Elizabethan England.
It poses another kind of challenge for Barnes: making it possible for women to dance, while wearing those enormous Elizabethan skirts, which historically topped layers of heavy petticoats.
“My plan is to make dresses the appropriate shape, but with layers of sheer, light material,” Barnes reveals. “It’s almost like baking a cake. You can’t plan the frosting first — you have to figure out the function, how it’s going to work. The costumes should be built like iron maidens, but move like butterflies.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org