Playwright: Matthew Lopez
At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: $30-$81. Runs through: Oct. 22
There was a time once, when men who did drag were regarded as specialty performers, a cult fraternity schooled in arcane skills forbidden to ordinary actors. Times have changed, of course, and now it is not only commonplace to see drag divas out of uniform ( so to speak ), but also for their craft to be embraced by all males pursuing a career in the theater. Playwright Matthew Lopez now takes another stiletto-heeled step toward the demystification of drag in a comedy proposing an all-American het boy who becomes a better man after donning lipstick and wig.
It helps that Casey was an enthusiastic participant in high school drama club before forging a part-time career as an Elvis impersonatorbut this is Panama City, in the unfashionable panhandle district of Florida, where his lip-synced mimicry ( despite being "more Ed Sullivan than Graceland" ) draws few customers to Cleo's Club. Owner Eddie is desperate enough to hire his brother Bob's lip-sync drag revue, starring the aforementioned sibling as the ebullient Miss Tracy Mills, along with her dumb-bunny assistant Anorexia "Rexy" Nervosa ( "It's Italian" ).
When the latter passes out drunk one night, Casey volunteers to go onstage in her place and a star is bornbut how will he explain the source of this new-found prosperity to his pregnant wife?
Lopez consolidates the Kinky Boots six-step agenda to an efficient 90 minutesbrevity sometimes demanding the suspension of credulity found in a universe where people say things like "we're going out with tits up and testicles tucked." He accomplishes this without a musical score, too, though his hero's road to enlightenment involves plenty of strut-your-stuff-girl classics, as well as a sweet acoustical ballad ( also by Lopez ), and an unforgettable rendition of Edith Piaf's "Padam, Padam."
Tracy and Casey's effervescent repartee, swapped by Sean Blake and Nate Santana with the precision of rapier duelists ( a glossary is provided in the playbill for those unversed in the jargon ), eventually gives way to the author's manifesto. "Drag is protest. Drag is a raised fist in a sequined glove. Drag is not for sissies" declares Jeff Kurysz' defiant Rexy, thus affirming the power of masquerade as a gateway to the self-discovery at the foundation of liberation from restrictive social roles.