Review: ‘Kinky Boots’ at The Kennedy Center

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In The Kennedy Center’s current production of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, a cornucopia of vibrant color runs riot through this exuberant and defiant celebration of diversity and solidarity.  From start to finish, I was swept up in the kaleidoscopic world of variety and ebullience that characterizes Cindi Lauper’s pulsating and melodic score and, unfortunately, a bit disappointed in the merely serviceable book by Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein.

Kinky Boots National Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
‘Kinky Boots’ National Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Indeed, the versatile musical range of Ms. Lauper encompassed every style from standard Broadway Brio to hard-driving rock to ballads and subtly interwoven country sounds. The dominant drawing power of this “feel -good” musical is most decidedly Ms. Lauper’s music which mirrors every mood and moment of this ebullient musical.

Director and Choreographer extraordinaire, Jerry Mitchell, has conceived a production that is as appealing as the outrageously appealing footgear that the actors wear. Mitchell’s choreography transported my imagination with its joyously freewheeling effervescence while, concurrently, conveying a syncopated style that mirrored the “conveyor belt” feel of the boot factory.   Mitchell’s choreographic direction of his group of high-kicking Angels was particularly intricate and striking.

The role of the “outsider” or the “different, unique person” is indelibly etched in so many musicals from The Music Man to Sideshow to Hairspray; in this instance, the individuals who may be considered as outsiders actually become assimilated and find that shared traits of humanity outweigh divisions between straight and gay.

The fantastic, eclectic musical score by Ms. Lauper, stunning Scenic Design by David Rockwell and Costume Design by Gregg Barnes (replete with sequins and accessories galore) helped the audience to forget about the aspects of the book that are somewhat cautiously explored.  Luckily, the heartfelt exploration of the relationships with the two protagonists’ fathers adds an intriguing psychological dimension to the musical and adds density to the proceedings.

The brilliant virtuosity of the acting and singing of J. Harrison Ghee as Lola cannot be underestimated.  As the provocative central figure of the musical, Ghee commands every moment he is on stage with physical authority and ease.  Mr. Ghee struts, sways and sashays with gleeful abandon in several of the larger ensemble numbers. Ghee also compels attention with his sensitive yet powerfully evocative singing voice —especially in his triumphant performance as he is dressed in a flowing white gown and bathed in white light (Kudos to Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner) singing in a soulful reverie of the bonds that he wishes could be repaired with his father. Entitled “Hold Me in Your Heart,” this song had an almost surrealistic, “out-of-this world” feel to it.  This shining musical moment is alone worth the price of a ticket—-a veritable knockout!

As Charlie Price, the successor to whatever financial fortune will befall the family’s struggling shoe factory, Adam Kaplan, conveys an intriguing acting portrayal that mixes sensitivity, pragmatism, idealism and frustration with appropriate parity. Mr. Kaplan is especially effective in his Act One song “Step One” and in his introspective yet compelling Second Act solo “Soul of a Man.”

Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and her Angels in 'Kinky Boots.' Photo by Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and her Angels in 'Kinky Boots.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) and her Angels in ‘Kinky Boots.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The previously mentioned theme of struggling to find a connection with their respective fathers is very powerfully displayed with heighted emotion and emotional acuity in the soulful duet (sung in beautifully-staged physical counterpoint) “Not My Father’s Son.” Here, once again, I was reminded that the primary glory of this musical is Ms. Lauper’s musical songwriting prowess.

Tiffany Engen as Lauren, the whacky and wonderful love interest of Charlie, was a giddy delight to observe. Whether Ms. Engen was spouting zingy one-liners and whimsical retorts or singing up a comedic storm in her musical solo ‘The History of Wrong Guys,” Engen was a breath of fresh air whenever she appeared on stage.

Two other musical numbers must be mentioned —namely, Act One’s “Sex Is in the Heel” and Act Two’s finale “Raise You Up/Just Be.”

In the first song, as led by Ghee as Lola, the large ensemble infectiously cavorted and careened around the entire stage with outrageous yet infectious, captivating and crackling sexual energy. As Ghee deliciously described the sensual, fetishistic allure of the newly-burgeoning “kinky” boots, Choreographer Mitchell vividly portrayed the radical idea that “Sex Is in the Heel” to a tee.  This number was an intricately conceived standout.

In the closing number entitled “Raise you Up/Just Be,” Ms. Lauper has delivered an almost anthem-like celebratory musical number that seemed to unspool into swirling patterns of emphatic and euphorically repeated exclamations of sheer musical ecstasy.  As the full company danced around the stage, it became ever more obvious to me that this was a musical to enjoy as pure diversionary escapism. The unmemorable book and some stock characters could easily be ignored with the strength of Ms. Lauper’s music.

Music Supervisor/Arranger/Orchestrator Stephen Oremus and Music Director Ryan Fielding Garrett are to be commended for their work with this wonderful score. Mr. Garrett has conducted an orchestra of twelve musicians that sounded much more powerful and compelling than larger orchestras I have heard in the past. (At the production I attended, there were some acoustical problems with the clarity of the sound —whether words were spoken or sung—-and staff informed me they were working to resolve these issues—-several other people I spoke to expressed the same concerns and, hopefully, these issues will soon be resolved).

If you are interested in a theatre experience that offers pure escapist color and flavor with the added jolt of a phenomenal performance by J. Harrison Ghee as Lola and a superior, scintillating musical score by Cindi Lauper—-do not miss the current production of Kinky Boots!

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

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Kinky Boots plays through July 19, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.