Review: Billy Porter Delivers Dynamic Concert, Feels the Hometown Love at Heinz Hall


The sparkling talent and dedicated drive were always there, pushing against walls of denial and prejudice. Then along came some dynamite named Lola, and Billy Porter became the unstoppable force he was always meant to be.

The Pop Star Porter was on full display in a high-octane concert/fashion show/hometown lovefest at Heinz Hall Sunday night, when he recounted conquering Broadway (a Tony and Grammy for Kinky Boots), television (an Emmy for Pose), movies (Cinderella; directing Anything’s Possible, and starring in Our Son debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival) on his way to chart-topping pop artist.

Pittsburgh native Billy Porter has a Kinky Boots moment during the Black Mona Lisa: Volume 1 concert at Heinz Hall on May 28.

Sunday marked the Pittsburgh stop of Porter’s Black Mona Lisa Tour: Volume 1, a cross-country trek to promote his upcoming album of the same name. While he bowed to his past often and gave a taste of Kinky Boots for Broadway fans, this show was all about the singer who once aspired to be the male Whitney Houston, and found a path to being the one and only Billy Porter.

Two singles from the new Republic Records album – “Baby Was A Dancer,” destined to be another dance-club hit, and which he noted is climbing the charts in the UK, and latest release “Fashion” – were uplifting highlights of Porter’s triumphant return to the Heinz Hall stage as a pop artist and dance club king, following hits Love Is on the Way and Love Yourself. 

If you had come for Broadway Billy, or the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, or, he warned, “the philharmonic … the Pops … Les Mi-i-i-i-z … this ain’t no of that!”

He did, however, reach back to the show that revived his career, Kinky Boots. For the medley, he donned the red high-heeled lace-ups once more and left the stage to  prance up and down the aisles and receive a whole lotta love.

It’s a stage he first was on at age 10, singing with Shirley Jones (to paraphrase Mr. Porter, if you don’t who that is, later for you!). This night, the audience was filled with friends and family – no one got up and danced more than Porter’s beloved sister, Mary Martha Ford, who was constantly out of her center orchestra seat.

Also in the audience, and with a job to do, was Mayor Ed Gainey and Pittsburgh’s First Lady, who came on stage with a proclamation to recognize Porter’s accomplishments, notably as the first openly gay winner of any acting Emmy and his activism on behalf of the Black queer community. 

Porter, swathed in a black-and-white checkered cloak, teared up and kiddingly admonished the mayor for ruining his makeup so early in the concert.

There were a series of style swaps to come, several during videos of interviews from late-night and daytime TV talk shows. 

Never one to be demure, Porter promised that there would be cussing going on, as his wont. He had gotten some pushback after a Hartwood Acres concert in 2017, when people came expecting Broadway’s Lola and got the real-life, no-holds-barred, say-what-you-mean entertainer.

In one of many wardrobe changes during his Heinz Hall concert Sunday, Billy Porter wore a catsuit that captured the light like a mirror ball.

Porter punctuated the night with searing commentary on those who would try to gain or use power to oppress the LBGTQ+ community. And he taught us a bit about “queenlish” – that language in which “bitch” is a term of endearment – and reminded us that guns (and car crashes) are the leading causes of child death in the U.S., yet many in power are legislating against drag queens?

Did I mention Porter was in great voice for a guy who has been touring for a month?

At 53, he can rock a disco-ball catsuit, dance the night away and deliver on multiple genres of music. If you saw him on Jimmy Fallon’s NBC show That’s My Jam, you know what he can do with a gospel song. He re-created the moment of singing Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger” to gospel music, and challenged her to record the song with him, after she said she had never heard a better rendition.

Backed by a tight live band, along with computer-generated back-up and effects, Porter made up for the many years when his career was at a standstill, dancing and prancing and posing the night away. There were echos of artists whose shoulders others stand on — Little Richard and Rick James come to mind. But Porter is definitively his own man. He uses he/him pronouns as a challenge to toxic masculinity.

The rock-star lighting design included blinding flashes that took me back to scenes in the stage musical Dreamgirls, the inspiration for Porter’s life in song. For those who didn’t know the lyrics to many of the songs, the sound system at Heinz Hall wasn’t a big help for the arena sound produced by Porter and his band. However, the video and lighting cues were mostly spot-on for this tour that started in Seattle on April 29 and finishes in Connecticut on June 3. Next stop: NYC’s Beacon Theatre, on Wednesday..

The singer took a breather to invite his sister, BFF Joe King, cousins and close friends onstage to “sissy that walk,” in RuPaul’s Drag Race terminology. But when he was on, he was ON – vocally stretching from deep and guttural to belting seemingly beyond the limits of his range. 

To his fellow Pittsburghers, he also delivered a message to everyone present, requiring audience members to recite “I am worthy” over and over with him. It’s something he finally realized about himself – chronicled in the Webby Award-winning “Unprotected: A Memoir”that he feels compelled to pass along. 

Porter promised an “epic encore” and delivered, first with “Stronger,” then the disco-era standard I Will Survive” and “Finally Ready.”

Finally is right. He has been ready for the spotlight for way too long. For me, few moments will ever equal the standing ovation he received as Lola, mid-Kinky Boots, at the Benedum Center. But to watch a Pittsburgh audience embrace this sparkling native son as a pop artist provided another unforgettable night in the theater, courtesy of Billy Porter.

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