NEW YORK (Reuters) - A precocious moppet with an edge will face off against a proud drag queen when the annual Tony awards, Broadway's highest honors, are bestowed on Sunday night.
"Kinky Boots," an adaptation of a British film about a struggling shoe factory reinventing itself by making boots for drag queens, topped the Tony nominations with 13.
But many Broadway experts see the British import "Matilda," which boasts ecstatic reviews and 12 nods, prevailing as best new musical.
"This is a two-way race," said Entertainment Weekly's Thom Geier about the awards.
The "Boots" team includes Broadway veterans Harvey Fierstein, director Jerry Mitchell and music by pop star Cyndi Lauper. Its story bears the hallmarks of acceptance and triumph, which would likely play well on tours of the heartland.
"Matilda," based on a story by Roald Dahl about a freakishly intelligent little girl's persecution by her crass family and a fearsome school headmistress, has collected the lion's share of early prizes including the Drama Desk.
But following the Tony nominations its box office receipts dropped slightly, while the take for "Kinky Boots" edged up.
Goldderby.com, a website that tracks show business awards, polled 14 Broadway experts and found a near split for the top prize, with a slight edge going to "Matilda."
"The production made history at the Olivier Awards, winning a record seven of ten bids," the website said, adding "Kinky Boots" nabbed some early best musical honors "and could pull off an upset."
Patrick Healy of the New York Times predicted "the warmth of 'Kinky Boots' will be enough to score an upset."
On the drama side most experts predict the best actor award will go to Hollywood star Tom Hanks for his Broadway debut in the late Nora Ephron's journalism drama, "Lucky Guy."
They also see veteran playwright Christopher Durang winning his first best play Tony for his crowd-pleasing comic riff on Chekhov, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which stars Sigourney Weaver and Tony nominee David Hyde Pierce.
"The clear front-runner is 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' goldderby.com said, noting "reviews were stellar across-the-board."
Cicily Tyson, marking her return to Broadway after a 30-year absence, is expected to take home the prize for best actress for her moving turn in a revival of "The Trip to Bountiful," while an acclaimed, though shuttered production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is the likely winner for best revival of a play.
A much-praised reworking of the seminal 1970s musical "Pippin" is the clear favorite to win for best musical revival, while the best actor prize is expected to come down to two men wearing dresses.
Billy Porter holds the center of "Kinky Boots" as the noble drag queen, but Bertie Carvel steals the show as the dementedly outrageous school headmistress in "Matilda." All bets are on Patina Miller to win best actress as the host in "Pippin," a part that won Ben Vereen a Tony in the original production.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Broadway will emerge victorious. Box office receipts typically spike in the weeks after the awards.
"Year after year we find that shows that win a Tony award do better at the box office," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of industry group The Broadway League.
"Once," a small Irish love story with no big name stars, is still going strong a year after sweeping last year's awards, including best musical.
On the flip side, the awards can be irrelevant to a show's fortunes. This season's biggest hit, Berry Gordy's "Motown: The Musical" was snubbed in the best musical category in favor of two limited run musicals, garnering only one major nomination.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Walsh)