This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As a musical, "Kinky Boots" works awfully hard to preach its clichéd message of acceptance. But the Broadway touring show, which plays at the Eccles Theater through Sunday, offers an even larger message: Welcome to the Land of Lola.

The 2013 Tony-winning show seems dated, already, for its attempts to mainstream drag queens. But set that aside, because J. Harrison Ghee's Lola is simply terrific.

The actor, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, has the legs of a showgirl and the arms of a personal trainer, which makes him look altogether brilliant in thigh-high red patent boots. Even better: His acting has a subtlety that makes his performance shine as brightly as the starfield on the ceiling of downtown's new roadhouse. He offers a masterclass in how to play to a big house without resorting to mugging.

It's not just that you can't take your eyes off Lola. It's that you don't want to, no matter how much overexposure stories about life-coaching drag queens have received in pop culture in recent years.

Harrison nails his character's quirky Cyndi Lauper-penned, Tony-winning showcase numbers with his big vocal range. But it's the authenticity of his performance that sets him apart: Ghee's Lola makes you care.

His rendition of "Not My Father's Son," set in the factory bathroom, is stripped-down and powerfully rich. His second-act torch song, "Hold Me in Your Heart," is richly enhanced by his white silk chiffon gown and bobbed wig. As Harrison delivers them, both songs deserve their place in the contemporary musical-theater canon.

Watching him so efficiently win over the Salt Lake City opening-night audience offers the feeling of discovery. Ghee has the chops to be a major big-name star, which is so rare to witness among the ranks of the country's talented, but mostly imitative, touring cast actors.

The show gets off to a less-than-interesting beginning with some predictable factory scenes that set up the characters' predictable conflicts, before Harvey Fierstein's book settles into a predictably preachy second act.

And that's the problem of the show: The script hits just about every mark of musical-theater structure, from showcasing a quirky ensemble of blue-collar characters to the conflict sparked by a macho male antagonist, to a showcase anthem ("Soul of a Man") for a conflicted, down-and-out lead. Along the way, there's the prerequisite, shoehorned-in heterosexual romance.

Busting up those expectations, though, there's the narrative freshness provided by Lola and her sparkly drag queen angels. In their dancing and eye-candy appearances, the male and female angels match Lola's brilliance.

The big set pieces all work, complete with the first-act closer that spotlights incredibly tricky conveyor-belt choreography, and the Lola-led ensemble piece "Sex Is in the Heel" is as deliciously staged as its title.

"Kinky Boots," the musical adapted from the 2006 Sundance film, tells the based-on-real-life story of a young scion of a shoemaking family, Charlie Price (Curt Hansen), who with his girlfriend, Nicola (Katerina Papacostas), dreams of running away to London. They want to leave behind their economically depressed hometown.

On the death of his father, Charlie inherits the factory's debts. After a chance meeting with Lola, a drag queen who has her own father-son problems, Charlie leads an effort to restructure the factory to build beautiful, stiletto-heeled boots sturdy enough to hold the weight of drag queens.

Along the way, he begins to appreciate the strategic thinking of a female shoemaker, Lauren (Rose Hemingway). Hansen has a smile reminiscent of a young Tom Cruise, but his vocal quality and character don't rise above the script's stereotypes. His overlooked love interest, Lauren, exhibits a quirky charm, but the jarring choreography, muddy sound mix and overpowering synthesizer don't give her character enough individuality beyond her big song, "The History of Wrong Guys."

Overall, this is Lola's show, and watching Ghee's performance is worth the price of the ticket.

facebook.com/ellen.weist —

Sing me another gender-loving verse: 'What a Woman Wants'

J. Harrison Ghee offers a star-making turn as he invites theatergoers into the "Land of Lola" in the touring musical "Kinky Boots."

When • Through Sunday; Wednesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 20, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 21, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 22, 1 and 6:30 p.m.

Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Running time • Two hours and 20 minutes, including 15-minute intermission

Tickets • $30-$85 (plus service and facility fees, about $12), at 801-355-ARTS (2787) or https://artsaltlake.org

comments powered by Disqus