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They earned a Cyndi Lauper shoutout. Now, Southwest's 'Kinky Boots' cast is headed to national stage

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When Lincoln Southwest High School theater director Bob Henrichs heard about the Cyndi Lauper shoutout, he rightfully erred on the side of disbelief.

There could be no way. The Cyndi Lauper of '80s pop music fame? Who wrote such hits as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time"? Not to mention the Tony Award-winning musical "Kinky Boots," which Southwest performed last December.

"It was like, 'Oh, my gosh, is this really true?'" Henrichs said Wednesday.

Indeed, Lauper had turned to Facebook last year to praise Southwest for putting on a "great version" of her 2012 musical. Jerry Mitchell, the choreographer and director of the Broadway show, even sent the cast and crew a personal video, too.

But it wasn't just the performance that impressed Lauper. It was the fact that Southwest was using the show to raise money for the Trevor Project, the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.

The students raised about $3,000 for the organization through their performances last year, but they're not done yet.

On Thursday and Friday, the students will reprise their roles in "Kinky Boots" at Southwest before heading next week to Bloomington, Indiana, for the International Thespian Festival, where they'll be one of six schools from across the country to take the main stage.

It's the second year in a row and fourth time overall that Southwest has reached the prestigious high school theater festival's main stage, the only school in Lincoln to ever do so and the only school in Nebraska in the past 30 years.

Last year, the school's rendition of the musical "Newsies" earned main-stage honors, but the festival — which was held in Lincoln before moving to Indiana a few years ago — was held virtually, which meant no live performances.

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"We just had to click send and send the video link," Henrichs said.

But this year's festival is returning to its in-person format. The two benefit performances at Southwest on Thursday and Friday, which both start at 7 p.m., will raise money to pay for the cast and crew to attend the festival. It will also help pay for production costs, including moving the set's 40-by-18-feet faux-brick factory wall made of Styrofoam.

"It's about 1,000 pounds of wall that has to be (moved)," Henrichs said.

Each upcoming performance will feature a "minute to give it" fundraiser, in which audience members can make cash donations to the Trevor Project on site. You can also donate at https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/59958.

For Southwest junior Steven Dao, who plays the drag queen Lola in "Kinky Boots," raising money for the Trevor Project was personal for him as a member of the LGBTQ community.

Steven Dao

Steven Dao.

"It was just something that we wanted to do ... in the light of the LGBTQ community and the hardships that we face being openly gay," he said.

Dao got involved in musical theater as a crew member his freshman year before earning prominent roles in productions of "Newsies" and "Mamma Mia" his sophomore year.

When he auditioned for "Kinky Boots," he originally wanted to play the main role of Charlie Price, who takes over the failing shoe factory from his father and forms an unlikely partnership with Lola to produce a line of high-heeled boots and save the business.

In fact, playing Lola wasn't even on his mind.

"I did not want to touch the role," Dao said.

It was difficult as first, he says. He felt like he was trying too hard to emulate Billy Porter, who played Lola on Broadway, rather than just being himself. 

"As I continued and got more comfortable and accepted myself as the character, I put myself in the role rather than putting someone else in the role," he said.

He especially credits Jami Tesch and Tricia Aldag, instructors from the local dance school Pas de Deux, in helping him learn the choreography.

And when he found out in January that the school's production was invited to the mainstage, Dao — like many of his peers — was surprised.

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"We were all in shock," he said. "All the hard work for the past couple of months felt paid off."

Southwest wasn't even planning on putting on the musical until Music Theatre International, a licensing agency in New York, reached out to Henrichs asking if the school would be interested in being part of free nationwide pilot of the show, which was based off a 2005 British movie of the same name.

"It was too good to pass up," Henrichs said.

The Silver Hawk cast was allowed to use the original, trademarked choreography from the show, too.

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In the end, raising money for the Trevor Project went hand-in-hand with "Kinky Boots," a show about "the positive message of being yourself," acceptance and love, Henrichs said.

Southwest has used past shows to raise money for other organizations, too, including the Matthew Sheppard Foundation when it put on the play "The Laramie Project."

Next week, the Southwest cast will perform "Kinky Boots" twice on the Indiana University campus, where thousands of students will flock for the weeklong event. They take the stage on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

For Dao, it will be culmination of everybody's hard work.

"It's kind of a team effort to get there."

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Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @HammackLJS

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K-12 education reporter

Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.

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