June 24, 2016 at 9:30 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
‘Boots’ and sass
Kinky Boots, gay news, Washington Blade

From left are Aaron Walpole, J. Harrison Ghee and the cast of the national tour of ‘Kinky Boots. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Kinky Boots’ 
 
Through July 10
 
The Kennedy Center
 
Tickets start at $49
 
202-467-4600
 

Wishy-washy Charlie Price isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life. He’s neither terribly interested in carrying on the family business, a smallish men’s shoe factory in depressed Northern England, nor too keen on following his striver girlfriend Nicola to London. But just when he’s acquiesced to her plans, the unthinkable happens — Charlie’s father dies and he’s forced to make some big decisions.

The musical “Kinky Boots” is Charlie’s story about finding his place in the world.  But it also tracks the journey of another scion of sorts, namely Lola, a fierce drag queen who defied her queer-hating prizefighter father’s plan that he be a boxer and instead followed a dream that included red sequins and wigs.

Adapted from the small same-titled 2005 British film, which was drawn from an unlikely but true story, the Broadway hit is the collaboration of pop icon Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) and out actor/writer Harvey Fierstein (book). The national tour of the production is playing at the Kennedy Center.

Now back to the plot. When Charlie (Adam Kaplan) returns to Northampton and takes the helm of failing Price & Son, he’s unsure if he can keep the business going. After a chance meeting with Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) in London, Charlie is convinced that switching the product from finely made men’s brogans to thigh-high red boots for drag queens and cross dressers with big feet is the way to go. Lola, who understands a strapping man’s need for sturdy stilettos, takes on designing duties.

When Lola, whose real name is Simon, arrives on the scene accompanied by the Angels (the drag queens from his London act), the factory’s close-knit group of longtime employees is initially reluctant to the change, but a desire to remain employed along with Lola’s courage and big heart does the trick. Lola/Simon gives everyone, including Charlie, a lesson in acceptance and what it means to be a man.

Cyndi Lauper’s pop rock score is crammed with infectious melodies and lackluster lyrics. Highlights include the big, rousing number “Sex is in the Heel,” and Lola’s 11th hour power ballad “Hold Me Up In Your Heart.”

As Charlie, Kaplan gives a credible performance but is nonetheless overpowered by Ghee’s Lola. Ghee’s potent presence and strong vocals is the engine that moves the show. The supporting cast includes the terrific out actor Jim J. Bullock (TV’s hit sitcom “Too Close for Comfort” and the short-lived chat show “Jim J and Tammy Faye”) as George the factory’s fey floor manager. With strong acting and a beautiful voice, Charissa Hogeland makes the most of her small part as Charlie’s girlfriend, Nicola. Tiffany Engen is amusing as feisty Lauren, a savvy factory worker who carries a torch for Charlie.

David Rockwell’s set sits impressively on the Kennedy Center Opera House’s cavernous stage, a Victorian-looking high-ceilinged factory that easily morphs into various locations including a London gay bar, a Northampton sports pub and a runway show in Milan. And costume designer Gregg Barnes’ array of sexy boots are a fetishist’s dream.

The musical is directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. His varied choreography makes use of the factory’s conveyor belt, and includes an imaginative boxing scene involving Lola and Don (the excellent Aaron Walpole), a brusque employee unused to working with blokes in ladies’ shoes. But best of all are the athletic and daring dance numbers performed in very, very high heels by Lola and the Angels.

If all this sounds familiar, it is. Musicals based on films set in working class England and archetypical wise drag queens have become theater staples, and Fiersteins’s book feels predictable and sometimes ploddingly told. Despite any shortcomings, “Kinky Boots” is undeniably a crowd pleaser evidenced by the Kennedy Center audience that couldn’t seem to get enough.

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