Theater review: ‘Kinky Boots’ stomps joyfully into Fox Theatre

Packed with a heartfelt Cyndi Lauper score, a sassy glamazonian drag queen and a timely message about why it’s important and necessary to love and accept our gay children, “Kinky Boots” proudly stomped into the Fox Theatre just a day after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed Georgia’s so-called “religious liberty” bill.

Pure serendipity, perhaps.

But it was impossible not to step back and take in Tuesday night’s opening of the Tony Award-winning show by composer-lyricist Lauper, who has long been an LGBT activist and advocate for celebrating one’s “True Colors,” and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who was openly gay before it was cool.

Here’s what happened: One minute, Atlanta drag royal Baton Bob was posing for photos in the Fox lobby. The next minute, a pint-size boy was skipping joyfully across the stage in a pair of red high heels.

That would be little Simon (Jomil Elijah Robinson), the Northampton, England, lad who grows up to be Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), a campy cross-dresser who to his father’s chagrin is more comfortable in 6-inch heels than a man’s suit. Ghee’s Lola — possessed of an attitude that is pure RuPaul and a vocal range that suggests the throaty emotionalism of Nina Simone and the triumph of the downcast Effie White in “Dreamgirls” — is about as good as it gets in the theater, any night anywhere.

If you don’t know the plot of “Kinky Boots,” based on the 2005 film of the same name, it centers on young Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan), a shoemaker’s son who tries to rescue the failing family business by making boots for men who dress as women. Lola, whom Charlie meets by chance, is his muse and eventual designer. Their journey from industrial England to the runways of Milan is the thread that laces up the musical-theater shoe, which is not, as it turns out, entirely seamless.

As directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (“Hairspray,” “La Cage aux Folles”), “Kinky Boots” unpacks a spectacular trunk load of costumes (by Gregg Barnes); song-and-dance numbers involving conveyor belts and sketchpads; and some angry twists and sappy turns that distract but never quite trip up the giddy sashay of the material.

Kaplan is a fine actor and singer who portrays a character who in his way is as torn as Lola (“Not My Father’s Son,” “Soul of a Man”). Charlie has one toe in London with his status-conscious girlfriend, Nicola (Charissa Hogeland), and both ankles in his father’s business, where there’s a second love interest in the person of spastic factory girl Lauren (Tiffany Engen).

Charlie is backed up by his employees, whom he wants to treat like family; Lola by the leggy chorus of Angels, his drag-queen sistas-in-crime who transport every dance number to delicious heights (“Land of Lola,” “Sex Is in the Heel”).

Lauper delivers a catalog of songs that pop with ’80s electronica and emotional authenticity. David Rockwell creates an all-purpose set that inverts the shoe factory for a multitude of purposes. And Kenneth Posner paints it all in light that is by turns bright and revealing, thoughtful and introspective.

While the company is uniformly top-notch, it is Ghee’s show first and last.

His comedic skills — the purring, preening, raucous laughter and old-school, Hollywood-style camp-glamour — make him a cross-dressing diva to rival the likes of Charles Busch and Neil Patrick Harris. But comedy can only carry you so far, no matter how high the heel. In the end, it’s his ability to capture the sadness beneath the mask that breaks the heart.

And that is why, in a world where hate-mongering is disguised as lawmaking, his Lola feels so essential to the hour.

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