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Timely ‘Kinky Boots’ ties into myriad social issues

J. Harrison Ghee (in blue sparkles), stars as Lola in the national tour of "Kinky Boots." (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

“Kinky Boots,” the hit musical that began life with a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago in 2012, went on to win the 2013 Tony Awards for best musical and score (a true triumph for pop icon Cyndi Lauper), and has been seen on national tours, and on stages in London, Toronto, Korea and Japan.

‘KINKY BOOTS’

Recommended

When: Through Sept. 4

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $25 – $98

Info: http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

Without question, the show — which has returned to Chicago for a brief engagement at the Oriental Theatre — connects with audiences. And this should not be surprising given that its story (penned by Harvey Fierstein, and based on the Miramax film), is a feel-good tale dealing with gender issues (including the choice of bathrooms), the acceptance of differences, social class distinctions, and the tension between fathers and sons. It also is derivative of such other hits as “La Cage aux Folles” and “Billy Elliot.”

Watching the show again, what was most intriguing was the way it inadvertently captured aspects of recent debates on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Brexit issue that hit Great Britain earlier this year, and our own presidential campaign’s questions that ask: What should be done as manufacturing jobs disappear and leave many blue-collar workers in the lurch? Who is to blame? And can such jobs ever really be “brought back”?

J. Harrison Ghee (in red boots), leads the cast of the national tour of “Kinky Boots” at the Oriental Theatre through Sept. 4. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
J. Harrison Ghee (in red boots), leads the cast of the national tour of “Kinky Boots” at the Oriental Theatre through Sept. 4. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The plot: Price & Son of Northampton, England, a men’s shoe factory established in 1890, is already in financial meltdown by the time twentysomething Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan), is forced to return from his new career in marketing in London after the death of his loving father, a third generation owner of the business who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. Price is more than ready to close the factory, but the employees he has known all his life see it as their only source of a paycheck, and one of them, Lauren (Tiffany Engen), suggests they can make a go of things by finding a niche.

And wouldn’t you know it? That niche is discovered after Charlie, back in London, rescues a quite stunning woman-in-distress who is being mugged. He soon learns that Lola (J. Harrison Ghee) is really a drag queen — the alter ego of Simon, who endured painful rejection by his boxer father — and works as an entertainer whose outfits include high fashion, knee-high, stiletto-heeled boots. Of course it is the manufacturing of reinforced “kinky boots” that are to become the factory’s niche – but not before a whole lot of lessons in tolerance and the real definition of manhood are learned.

With its high-energy direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell still in fine fettle, the touring production features a notably terrific Lola. Ghee is a tall, slender singer-dancer (with legs most women would sell their souls for), and when he is in drag, wearing sensational wigs (credit Josh Marquette), he captures the flamboyant, confident allure of a young Tina Turner, with a touch of Beyonce. But when he puts on a suit there is a real shyness and delicacy about him that suggests just what is behind all the protective flash.

Kaplan has a power voice and gives his all to “Soul of a Man,” his second act “aria.” But that second act is problematic in the way it suddenly signals a panicked turnabout in Charlie’s attitude toward Lola that seems designed simply to increase conflict between the two before the story circles around to a happy ending. Engen is the comic engine who connects with Charlie and sings of “The History of Wrong Guys.” Aaron Walpole plays Don, the sweet caricature of a barrel-bellied “real man” factory worker.

David Rockwell’s sets and Gregg Barnes’ costumes mix realism and pizzazz, and Stephen Oremus’ orchestrations and Ryan Fielding Garrett’s musical direction help make “Everybody Say Yeah.” Given all that, I’d still much prefer to see another edition of Sting’s end-of-industry musical, “The Last Ship.”