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AJ Bridel in Kinky Boots: Rocking Red Shoes Again

AJ Bridel in Kinky Boots, mirvish, kinky boots

Kitchener native AJ Bridel stars in “Kinky Boots.” AJ has loved musical theatre for as long as she can remember; she says it is in her blood. She is known for her appearance on the reality TV show “Over the Rainbow,” which documented Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Dorothy for the 2013 Mirvish production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

AJ had just graduated from high school when she appeared on the show; she ended up coming in third place.

Since then, she has kept busy with numerous roles across Canada. Earlier this year, she donned ruby red slippers to play Dorothy in Drayton Entertainment’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Now, she is trading in slippers for high-heels—also red—to play the charmingly awkward female lead in the Mirvish production of “Kinky Boots,” directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell.

“Kinky Boots” is a big deal, huh? You and your cast are the ones introducing this Tony-award winning musical to Canada for the first time. How does that feel?

It’s crazy when you word it that way. It’s the Canadian premiere!

There have only been so many productions of this show and we’re the first to come to Canada. I think it’s such a special thing to be a part of and playing a role like Lauren is a dream come true.

It’s extra special because the opening of “Kinky Boots” is part of Pride Week. Pride is such a huge deal in Toronto; we’re such a prideful city. Is that fun to be a part of?

It couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly; it couldn’t possibly have been timed better.

The city is pulsing with pride about being who you are, whether that has to do with sexuality, gender, or just coming to terms with who are you are as a human being more generally.

That’s what our show is all about: accepting who you are as a person and just being you.

You’ve traded in one pair of red shoes for another.

I never thought of that; that’s amazing! I do wear sparkly red shoes at the end of the show and they are so fierce! I’m looking at them right now.

Are they comfortable?

They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve worn in my life! I don’t know how they make them so comfortable. That being said, I don’t have to wear heels for the whole show. Lola and all of our Angels are in stilettos the whole time so I give props to them.

Cyndi Lauper and Elton John’s husband, David Furnish, are leading the Pride Parade as International Grand Marshals. Cyndi is also going to be there for you on opening night. Are you feeling any pressure with such a big star in the audience?

There are some nerves but I feel excitement more than anything else. I’m a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper—as are most people, I would assume—and to be singing her work in a venue like the Royal Alexandra Theatre is already amazing. On top of that, I get to sing it for her on opening night! How many people get to do that?

Have you met Cyndi Lauper yet or will you be meeting her for the first time on opening night?

We haven’t met her yet; this is the week. We’re all looking forward to it. It’s so surreal that she’s coming.

Meeting Jerry Mitchell was a pretty similar experience, though. He’s huge. Just auditioning for him made me feel like, “Whoa where am I?” Working for him has been amazing. He’s amazing. I’ve been a little star struck this whole time.

You’re obviously no stranger to performing for total musical theatre royalty; you performed for Andrew Lloyd Webber on the TV show, “Over the Rainbow.” You got so close to working for Mirvish three years ago on that show and now you’ve worked your way back to the Mirvish stage.

It’s crazy to think that I almost played Dorothy Gale and now I’m playing Lauren in “Kinky Boots” just a few years later.

I’m playing this quirky, funny weirdo of a blonde, which is so different from what I have done before. I’ve never been blonde in a show before!

The whole thing is surreal; I finally got my Mirvish debut in a show that I can relate to so much and it just seems like it was meant to be.

Cyndi Lauper has said that “Kinky Boots” is “a happy little pill of a show.” I think the way she phrases that seems to suggest that the show could be a healing experience for people, especially when it comes to the family theme. When you hear a song like “Not My Father’s Son,” you can definitely see why. I feel like that song would resonate with so many people, you included?

Absolutely. This show surprises you; it’s fun, catchy, and uplifting. It makes you feel like a million bucks and you walk out of the theatre singing all the music, but it also surprises you when it touches your heart. This show definitely sneaks up on you.

I think the moving and truly inspirational part of this show is the connection built between Charlie and Lola; I think that’s where the family aspect comes from. Charlie’s factory is his family. We all have a family—some that we choose and some that we don’t—and we love them and we would do anything for them. That’s what Charlie is doing; he’s trying to save his family.

He meets somebody who is completely different and it changes his entire world. I think we all have that person in our life, too. We all have someone who has in some way or another picked us up, dusted us off, and changed our lives. I can totally relate to that.

I can relate to being in Charlie’s position. Of course, not literally—I don’t have a factory that I inherited from my parents—but I have seen hard times and I have struggled and I have had that one or two or three people change everything because they took the time.

It works vice versa too, in both the real world and in our show. Charlie changed everything for Lola as well.

It’s so interesting that Cyndi Lauper decided to take her talents to Broadway and develop “Kinky Boots” with Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell.

It’s not really a new thing for pop singers to take on Broadway; everyone from Elton John to Bono has tried it. However, these musicals are different from jukebox musicals like “We Will Rock You” or “Rock of Ages.”

“Kinky Boots” is one of the most recent, and most successful, examples of pop composers trying their hand at creating new material for the stage. Cyndi Lauper has hinted that she might be developing something new at the moment.

On your Facebook page, you said that you dream of changing the face of musical theatre. Do you think that getting involved with this trend towards musical theatre-pop fusion could be part of that?

Absolutely. I think that this show is so innovative and cutting edge and the music is a huge reason for that. Every song is so different. When you come see the show, you’ll see that there are so many different styles. It’s not repetitive at all.

Cyndi really knew what she was doing and it’s a testament to her musicality that she tweaks songs to fit the actor or to fit the scene.

There’s a song in a pub in a “Mumford and Sons” kind of style, which is completely different than the rest of the show.

It’s incredible how unique, and yet how catchy and easy to listen to, every single song is. I love that and I love being a part of that.

You’re the one singing these awesome songs—they really have that awesome power of getting stuck in your head all day. Do you have to do anything different to get that pop sound? I think a lot of Lauren’s singing parts have a throwback vibe about them. They sound like classic Cyndi.

So true. I think one thing that I have learned in the rehearsal period is not to mimic a sound. What is so great about singing Cyndi’s material is that you can trust the music. A lot of people will sing a song, add a bunch of licks, wail here, and growl there. With Cyndi’s music, it’s so well written that you just have to sing what is written. It does so much of the work for you.

That being said, I’ve listened to Cyndi’s music a lot because I definitely want to give a nod to her and her style, especially with “The History of Wrong Guys,” which is my solo in the show. It is very typical Cyndi Lauper.

The one thing that I’ve noticed while listening to her that I really love is that she doesn’t throw anything away. She makes every single note and every single phrase count. If you watch her live or listen to her, you’ll notice that she’s working the whole time. That is extremely inspirational to me.

When you’re singing Cyndi, You’re giving it everything that you have. It’s so rewarding to sing her music that way because it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted at the end of my number.

Giving it everything and trusting the music is such a gift for the performer, and so is having a song like “The History of Wrong Guys” in a musical like “Kinky Boots.” I’ve been saying that ever since I got the part.

This musical, and your role as Lauren, comes with another challenge: the dreaded Northern British accent. How are you handling it?

We have an amazing dialect coach. Her name is Amy Jo Jackson and she is so good. She’s from New York, she did the Broadway production and the tour, and she excels at tweaking the little details.

I think everyone came into rehearsal with some preparation of the Northampton accent, but she knows exactly where it needs to sit and she points out the little things you do with your T’s and your vowels that make such a big difference. I think that in ten minutes with her, you can go from 1 to 100. She’s just amazing.

Learning the accent has actually been a really cool experience. I never really got nervous because we were in such good hands.

Challenges aside, this role could be a life-changer for you. It’s a big break, don’t you think?

It’s pretty huge. It feels like a lot of work is paying off. It feels like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

The big break thing is something to think about, but the bottom line is that I’m in a show that I’m in love with, playing a role that I’m in love with, with a production company that I’m in love with!

I could be in a show playing a role with a company in Alberta, or British Columbia, or who knows where and I could be just as happy. It’s not about the extravagance of it—as amazing as that is, don’t get me wrong—I’m just so overwhelmingly happy to be doing what I love.

This show is extremely touching and life-changing and we reach 1500 people a night. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Have you heard of Tina Maddigan? I’m asking because her story is a little bit like yours.

She was a 23-year-old Newfoundlander fresh from Sheridan College when she got a great role with Mirvish, playing Sophie in “Mamma Mia.” She ended up going to Broadway to originate the role there too, she had a hosting gig with the Discovery Channel for a while, and she appeared in “The Wedding Singer” on Broadway. Now, a couple years on from all of that, she has settled down in Kansas City and she has started a family with her husband. She’s not really doing too much theatre anymore.

You’re 21 years old, and as a twenty-something myself, I know the last thing to be thinking about at this age is starting a family. However, twenty-somethings are definitely thinking about their futures.

Do you think that this role with Mirvish has changed your career trajectory at all? Do you have a plan going forward or are you going to take it as it comes?

It’s a catch-22 because I love this business and I love what I do but it comes with a certain type of instability. It’s hard to know what I’m going to be doing in a year, two years, or three years if this is the business that I want to be in.

In the grand scheme of things, I would love to start a family. I can’t imagine not being a mom; I would love being a mom. I really hope that happens someday, but I have some things I want to get done first. Maybe I will be lucky enough to be able to do both. Realistically, I think it’s very difficult.

I commend Tina for deciding a family is what she wanted and settling down and following that dream of hers. I think I can relate; both things are really important to me. I can see temporarily putting the musical theatre dream on hold someday to have a family. That would be strictly temporary; I can’t be away from the stage for too long.

Last time you spoke with us, we asked about your dream roles and you told us you would love to play Anne of Green Gables. Is that still a dream of yours? Is your list of dream roles growing?

The list is never-ending! Anne of Green Gables is still number one; I’d love to go to Charlottetown to play Anne.

A recent dream role of mine is Fiona from “Shrek.” I feel like that part is in my bones. She has a hilarious burp-off bit with Shrek. When I saw that, I was like, “yeah, that’s my future. I could be in that show tomorrow.”

It’s such a fun show; it’s another one of those shows that sneaks up on you. It’s fun, it’s so quirky, but it’s also surprisingly touching.

It’s the best of both worlds when it’s heartfelt but also goofy.

That’s the magic combination right there.

AJ has this enthusiastic, frenetic energy and wonderful sense of humour that come across when you speak to her and when you see her perform. Behind the tireless enthusiasm, expert comic timing, and powerhouse vocals that make up AJ’s stage presence, you can see that she is a young actress living her dream and appreciating every single moment of the experience. What could be more heart-warming than that?

Don’t miss the podcast with AJ Bridel on The Inadequate Life where she discusses why she got kicked out of a production and how she made amends.
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You can catch AJ in “Kinky Boots,” now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (416-872-1212 or mirvish.com)

This interview has been edited and condensed.

By Emma Smith
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Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedermann

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