Review: Kinky Boots sashays with message of acceptance and diversity

(Photo courtesy Kinky Boots Tour)

(Photo courtesy Kinky Boots Tour)

“Kinky Boots” sashayed into Wilmington Tuesday night with its high-kickin’, high-stylin’ message of acceptance and infectious songs by pop phenom Cyndi Lauper.

Based on a 2005 Britflick, “Kinky Boots” tells the tale of two sons: Charlie (Adam Kaplan), reluctant heir to his father’s Northampton shoe factory and cross-dressing Simon (J. Harrison Ghee), disowned by his father who wanted another prizefighter in the family. When Charlie’s father suddenly dies, he’s forced to take over the factory and discovers that a sharp decline in orders has pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. But as he begins to hand out pink slips to his workers, one of them, Lauren (Tiffany Engen), has a light-bulb moment: she urges him to ditch the stodgy male oxfords and find a niche market.

An opportunity presents itself when Charlie has a chance encounter with Simon (en femme) who is fronting a drag revue at a London cabaret. As luck would have it, Lola and her Angels—a band of strapping drag queens– are grappling with a dilemma of their own: they’re in desperate need of some boot-delicious footwear capable of supporting their masculine weight. Before long, Charlie and Lola are partnering to design and engineer a sturdy stiletto boot that—in Lola’s libidinous description—is “two-and-a-half feet of irresistible, tubular sex.”

It’s really not about the shoes, though. It’s the story of two people who think they have nothing in common until they realize they’re not so different after all.

Luckily, Lauper’s pop-drenched songs don’t let the feel-good message get too touchy-feely. This is her first turn as a musical composer and she gives it all she’s got to create a delectably eclectic score that contains infectious dance tracks, soaring power ballads, silly love songs and even some seriously down-and-dirty funk.

J. Harrison Ghee is a casting director’s dream as Lola, the central figure of the musical. His contribution to the production cannot be overstated. From the moment he struts out on stage, he dominates as a fierce, feline Lola. Yet he is equally effective as the shy, soft-spoken Simon. It’s as if he sheds his bravado with his sequins. Ghee also possesses a powerfully emotive singing voice which is beautifully showcased in “Hold Me in Your Heart,” a bittersweet ballad in which he laments the lost relationship with his father and contemplates what could have been.

Adam Kaplan is also well-cast as Charlie Price, who must find a way to save the family business from financial ruin. Kaplan offers a convincing portrayal of a character that is a welter of conflicting emotions. He shines in his solo outings: Act One’s “Step One” and Act Two’s introspective yet powerful “Soul of a Man.”

Tiffany Engen is delightful as Lauren, Charlie’s zany, would-be love interest, the staffer who advised him to find a niche for the business early in the show. Whether she’s tossing out tart one-liners or delivering a litany of loves-gone-wrong in her solo number “The History of Wrong Guys,” she is a joy to watch.

Aaron Walpole is also fun as the homophobic, boorish factory worker Don who rises to the occasion. Charissa Hogeland does an admirable job with Nicola, Charlie’s self-centered fiancée. Her performance is all the more noteworthy since the cookie-cutter role doesn’t give her much to chew on.

The real scene-stealers, though, are the show’s Angels played with gleeful abandon and attitude by Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes and Sam Rohloff. They accomplish some superhuman feats. The audience gasped as they performed back flips in stilettos.

Special mention goes to Collin Jeffery and Sebastian Maynard-Palmer who portray Young Charlie and Young Lola, respectively. Both young men possess a stage presence well beyond their years. Jeffery, a Wilmington native with a formidable list of credits in community and regional theater, sings with a clear, strong voice and moves with ease and confidence. Maynard-Palmer is impressive in his pint-sized red stilettos.

The flashy footwear and jaw-dropping costumes—designed by Gregg Barnes– provide a kaleidoscope of color that contrasts nicely with David Rockwell’s finely appointed factory set with its rusted metal, weathered wood and tired bricks. Jerry Mitchell’s inspired choreography converts its conveyor belts into a mobile dance floor in the first-act finale “Everybody Say Yeah.”

The show ends with Lauper’s jubilant “Raise You Up/Just Be” which had the audience joining in with joyful affirmation of the message of diversity and acceptance. Or maybe they were just like the girls in Lauper’s breakthrough recording: they just wanted to have fun.

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If you go:

What: “Kinky Boots,” presented by Broadway in Wilmington

When: Now thru Sunday, December 18th  7:30 p.m. tonight. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.

Where: The Playhouse on Rodney Square, 1007 North Market Street, Wilmington. Street, garage and valet parking are available.

Tickets: $40 – $85, discounts available for seniors and groups of 10 or more.

To purchase visit www.thePlayhouseDE.org or call 302-888-0200.

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