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Lola's trademark "Kinky Boots" at 2 1/2 feet high on the thigh are a long, tall drink of patent leather. And actor J. Harrison Ghee jokes he feels as if he could run a marathon in those custom-fitted boots. "After the show, I don't want to take them off," he says.
It took 15 separate, tedious measurements to create his character's trademark red boots, as well as a second pair in which the heels and sides are studded with Swarovski crystals. "We've got some big boys in this show," says the 27-year-old actor. "I'm 6 feet 4, and that's a lot of boot."
Designing boots for drag queens is an innovative business idea for one struggling London shoe factory, one strand of the feel-good story of "Kinky Boots," a musical that's also about fathers and sons.
Theatergoers might think they know what the show is about, but it's really about acceptance, said producer Hal Luftig, when he came to Salt Lake City last spring to publicize the run of "Kinky Boots" in the opening season of downtown's new Eccles Theater. The show opens Tuesday for a six-day stand.
"We all know what it feels like to be an outsider," Luftig said. "The message can be embraced by anybody," no matter their politics.
Utahns have a history with the story, as the movie premiered at the Salt Lake Gala screening of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. "The film had the DNA of a musical," says Luftig, inspired by a true story of a young man who had inherited a struggling show factory from his father. In the musical version, Charlie Price forms a quirky partnership with a drag performer and former boxer, Lola, who convinces Charlie to create high-heeled boots for men in order to save the factory.
Luftig has a successful track record as a producer, winning four Tonys, while supporting shows such as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," and revivals including "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The King and I" and "Annie Get Your Gun."
The musical has a heart and a message, says Ghee, who used his part as Lola to explain to his conservative father, a Baptist minister, why he loves to perform in drag. The actor draws upon his six years of experience performing as Crystal Demure to inform his Lola. "It's a journey that's still evolving," Ghee says of his relationship with his father. "He's seen the show four times now, and he loves to shout out that he's Lola's proud father."
Ghee has particularly enjoyed the tour's four runs in his native North Carolina, where a controversial transgender bathroom law continues to make headlines. That's what is so delicious about the setting of one of the musical's most resonant numbers, "Not My Father's Son," which is set in a bathroom. Theatergoers have appreciated the irony, the actor says.
On the road, cast members often hear from young theatergoers that the show's message of acceptance helps them to have conversations about sexuality.
Before he won the part, Ghee understudied the role and served as dance captain for the first national tour. "Lola's strength is in her smile," is one of the notes Ghee received in rehearsal from the show's director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. The advice helped Ghee find the nuances to make the role his own, coming out from the shadow of Broadway's Billy Porter, who won a Tony in creating the role.
The show has had continued success, with a long-running national tour, as well as productions in Toronto, London, South Korea and Australia.
Ghee loves the book by Harvey Fierstein, as well as performing music by Cyndi Lauper, including songs such as his character's introduction, "Land of Lola," as well as "Sex is in the Heel," and "Hold Me in Your Heart." (A Broadway cast album, released in 2013, premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard Cast Albums chart.)
"There's a switch that goes on where you know you can conquer the world and think anything in the Land of Lola," he says.
And for a few nights this month, the Land of Lola will be in Salt Lake City.
When 'The Sex is in the Heel'
The touring Broadway musical "Kinky Boots," a stage adaptation of the Sundance Film Festival movie, comes to Utah. The musical was directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, winning six Tonys on Broadway, including Best Musical and Best Choreography, as well as Best Score for pop/rock musician Cyndi Lauper, the first solo woman to win that category.
When • Jan. 17-Jan. 22; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
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 arttix.org.