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Review: “Kinky Boots” overcomes its inherent weaknesses with its considerable charms

J. Harrison Ghee as the transgendered Lola in Kinky Boots. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
J. Harrison Ghee as the transgendered Lola in Kinky Boots. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Subtle and loaded with surprises it’s not, but for those looking for a high-kicking, energetic night of theater, Kinky Boots doesn’t disappoint. 

Surprisingly just now hitting the ATL after a few years of touring, the musical is running at the Fox Theatre through April 3 courtesy of Broadway Across America

Based on the 2005 movie, which itself was inspired by actual events, it’s the story of Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan), who has inherited a shoe factory from his father in Northampton, England. The factory is not doing much business and the shoes just don’t sell anymore. Charlie and crew appear to be out of touch with what the public wants. 

As fate would have it, one night Charlie meets Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), a cabaret performer/drag queen who is being confronted by a few drunk men. Inside the nightclub she works at, Charlie gets her advice for a new line of footwork, but realizes back at the factory later that he needs more of her input. Naturally, the statuesque Lola doesn’t go over well with some of the beer-drinking, ball-scratching men who work for Charlie. 

Kinky Boots won the Tony for Best Musical in 2013, knocking out Matilda in a mild upset. Its Lola, Billy Porter, also took home a Best Actor in a Musical award beating out its Charlie, Stark Sands. 

Storywise, though, this isn’t much. Even with the assist of Harvey Fierstein, who wrote this musical adaptation, it’s predictable. Virtually every aspect of the musical is clear within 20 minutes, from the feel-good ending to who Charlie will eventually wind up with. His girlfriend Nicola (Charissa Hogeland) is fairly overbearing; the musical would have been more balanced had it tried to make her less so.  

After an enjoyable, rousing first hour, the second act is kind of padded and bony, with only a half-dozen songs. There’s no reason this could not have been a one-act.

What really elevates this is the score by Cyndi Lauper — herself a Tony winner for her original songs — that ranges from crowd-pleasing numbers to quieter ballads. The two men realize how similar they are in “Not My Father’s Son,” which adds a few layers to the characters that not even Fierstein is able to do, while Lola visits a family members in her “Hold Me in Your Heart.” Yet it’s the flashier moments that really resonate. “Sex is in the Heel” is a giddy show-stopper where Lola describes exactly what the new footwork needs to look and feel like. The Act One closer, “Everybody Say Yeah,” (probably the best known number in the production) combines factory workers, a conveyor belt, colorful boots, Lola’s backup singers and lots of inventive dancing. 

Its cast is also uniformly winning. At first the character of Lola floats by on trademark one-liners and sassiness, but the role becomes deeper as the musical progresses. As the factory workers await Lola’s appearance, wondering what she’ll wear, what smart-ass comment will fly out of her lips, in walks … Simon, who Lola is outside of drag. Simon himself is not the center of attention. He is different without his sequins and wig, not nearly as comfortable either. Ghee gets it all right and his musical numbers — from the solos to the ensemble one — are terrific. He makes Lola a distinct person who could easily have been a cliché.

The character of Charlie can get lost in the Lola tsunami but to his credit, Kaplan makes him sympathetic and likable. The actor gets his own opportunities to showcase his stuff. 

Jim. J. Bullock is almost unrecognizable as George, Charlie’s longtime factory manager, and Tiffany Engen shows slick comic timing and showmanship as Lauren, a factory worker who has a crush on her boss Charlie. Of particular note too are Lola’s “angels” — Joe Beauregard, Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, JP Qualters, Sam Rohloff, Juan Torres-Falcon — who are a dazzling bunch of performers. 

Its message of accepting people for who they are may seem like an afternoon special, but at a time when lawmakers are targeting LGBT individuals down South, it is certainly timely. Kinky Boots also ends with a goofy runway number, with men and women wearing Lola’s new creations, that is so joyous and irresistible it negates that which doesn’t work. 

Kinky Boots’ heels don’t leave the imprint they could, but this is a puppy dog of a play. It’s messy and all over the place, yet it works so hard to win over its followers — practically licking them in the face at times — that it eventually charms. It’s hard to dis a production that wants nothing more than to make an audience smile. 

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