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The musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl novel. (©2013 Joan Marcus)
The musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl novel. (©2013 Joan Marcus)

Matilda vs. Kinky Boots: Why I’m betting on the kid Add to ...

Once again, it’s a showdown between the Brits and the Yanks at this year’s Tony Awards, based on the nominations announced on Tuesday in New York.

Kinky Boots, a new musical written by pop star Cyndi Lauper and Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein, is leading the pack with 13 nods, while Matilda, a tot-filled U.K. import based on the beloved Roald Dahl book of the same name, is just behind with 12.

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Of course, Matilda has already picked up a win – a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre award for the four girls who alternate in the main role – so this is really neck and neck. Having checked them both out, however, I’m pretty certain which musical will waltz away with the biggest prize, the best musical Tony, on June 9. (Yes, that’s a hint.)

Kinky Boots, though the U.S. contender, is based on a 2005 British film of the same name. Charlie Price (Stark Sands) inherits his father’s small-town shoe manufacturer and discovers that the company is going broke competing with cheap imported loafers from Eastern Europe. After a chance encounter with a drag performer named Lola (Billy Porter), he gets a bright idea of how to save the factory and avoiding laying off the workers he grew up around: making fetish boots for men who like to dress up like ladies.

There’s little unforeseen in the drag-queens-meet-rural-shoemakers plot – it’s basically La Cage aux Soles – but what is a pleasant surprise is the catchy, dance-floor score by Lauper, making her debut as a musical theatre composer. The stand-out, synth-filled number is called The History of Wrong Guys and begins, “Women have been making bad choices since the beginning of time.”

It’s sung by the talented comic performer Annaleigh Ashford, playing a factory worker with a crush on Charlie. Along with Porter’s sensitive performance as Lola, Ashford carries the show over the bumps of Fierstein’s unnecessarily contrivance-filled book and a charmless lead performance by Sands.

What’s distinguishes Kinky Boots from similar movies and shows set in small British towns is that it isn’t actually about working-class people finding inventive solutions to their problems (The Full Monty) or standing up valiantly to the capitalists (Billy Elliot). Instead, it’s about working-class people having to overcome their prejudices in order to be saved by entrepreneurship and individualism. And that, rather than its setting, makes it 100-per-cent American.

Matilda, which began life at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is hoping to be an austerity-era cash cow for that subsidized theatre the way War Horse has been for the National Theatre, is a more unsentimentally British piece of musical theatre.

It follows the time-tested transatlantic formula – from Oliver! to Billy Elliott – of having cute children with adorable accents sing and dance for North Americans. But it also remains mostly true to the original, darkly comic voice of Dahl, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame.

Matilda – an unloved brainiac, played by the incredible nine-year-old Sophia Gennusa on the day I was there – is an unusual child protagonist in that she never seems in genuine peril. She always keeps the upper hand over her bullying, chav parents (Lesli Margherita and the very funny Gabriel Ebert) and her evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull (the superlative Bertie Carvel).

There’s no Where is Love? or Tomorrow for this little urchin to sing. Instead, there are jaunty tunes penned by comedian Tim Minchin that break all the lyrical rules as they make fun of television and child-centred culture. The opening number, Miracle, performed by children decked out in superhero and princess costumes, is on point: “Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord / it’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me.”

The only problem here is that the targets of Minchin’s satire clash with those of Dahl, for instance British boarding schools full of semi-neglected children run by gleeful tyrants.

Tyrant-in-chief here is Miss Trunchbull who, keeping with British pantomime tradition, is played by a man, Carvel in a unwieldy upper-body suits and a wonderfully finicky, tremulous voice. Picking children up by the pigtails and tossing them into the audience, he is the joy of the show.

Matthew Warchus’s inventive production takes place in a colourful whirlwind of Scrabble tiles designed by Rob Howell and is filled with inventive, frenetic, cartoon-like choreography by Peter Darling. Everything about it is off-kilter in a pleasing way.

Kinky Boots stumbles by trying to shoehorn its story into a classic Broadway musical structure, while Matilda soars by paving its own winding path. It’ll take a miracle for the Yanks to beat the Brits this year.

For more on the Tony nominations – including Andrea Martin’s fifth nod for best featured actress in a musical and the first for Montreal costume designer Dominique Lemieux – visit Globe Arts.

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