‘Kinky Boots' Brings Lauper's Tony Tunes to Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Kinky Boots' at Kennedy Center

Jason Fraley | June 22, 2016 6:31 pm

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WASHINGTON — It took Broadway by storm in 2013, stomping its way to 13 Tony nominations and winning six, including the top prize of Best New Musical.

Now, “Kinky Boots” arrives at the Kennedy Center through July 10, combining the music of Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”) with a book by Harvey Fierstein (“La Cage aux Folles”).

“It truly is one of the most exciting scores of any show,” actress Tiffany Engen told WTOP. “To have a great book and you put great songs on top of it, then great choreography … it’s out of this world.”

Based on the 2005 film “Kinky Boots” by Geoffe Deane and Tim Firth, the musical follows Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan), who inherits a struggling shoe factory from his father in Northampton, England. Desperate to save the business, Charlie recruits cabaret drag queen, Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), to create a special line of high-heeled boots. Together, they learn they have a lot in common, all while Charlie juggles his fiancee Nicola (Charissa Hogeland) and new love interest Lauren (Engen).

“The factory has fallen on some hard times, so they really need to find a niche market to be catering their shoes to,” Engen said. “It sparks that lightbulb moment that makes Charlie realize that maybe that niche market we should make shoes for are drag queens. So they start designing kinky boots, which end up saving the factory. They learn a lot about each other throughout that journey as well.”

The showstopping role is, of course, the cross-dressing role of Lola, played by J. Harrison Ghee.

“He is absolutely sensational,” Engen said. “He really is a tour-de-force. He is beautiful in drag, I must say … To have an anchor in the show that is not only a powerhouse vocalist, a great actor, but also someone that is so honest and so truthful and organic and authentic in portraying this very difficult role, is awesome to watch every night … Vocally, he is just living his life every night at eight o’clock.”

Ghee’s Lola is backed by a group of electrifying backup dancers, known as Lola’s Angels.

“Being around these men that look so unbelievably beautiful in drag, it’s a little disheartening,” Engen joked. “I ask them for makeup tips more often than I care to admit, but they create such an energy.”

Do their feet hurt after all that stomping around?

“They never complain,” Engen said. “It is pretty funny when you first get your kinky boots … because every single person gets their own pair. They take upward of 17 measurements of your foot, instep, toes, ankles and calves to make sure these boots are completely custom-made to fit your foot. They’re the most comfortable of uncomfortable shoes. That’s the best way to describe them.”

Such a unique story would be tricky to pull off if you weren’t a nuanced storyteller like Fierstein.

“The book is just sensational,” Engen said. “Harvey has such a true gift of telling you exactly what you need to know to set up the narrative … but his words are always so honest and truthful. He can write these great, fiery dialogue scenes where it’s just like darts being thrown. We have a couple of great arguments and great fight scenes. It’s just so sharp and staccato that it takes real finesse as a writer to formulate a very intelligent argument where both sides are full of passion and inspiration.”

Still, for all the fiery passion, Engen says the secret weapon is the book’s quiet, touching insight.

“I also think he writes such beautiful, quiet moments,” Engen said. “One of my favorites is a scene that takes place between Charlie and Lola, where Lola is describing how he grew up and how he felt like he never lived up to his father’s expectation of him, and Charlie has dealt with the exact same issue with his father, not being able to live up to the expectations that their fathers had set for them.”

This quiet scene launches into the song “My Father’s Son,” one of many must-see show tunes.

“The music is by Cyndi Lauper and it really is unlike any musical theater score we’ve ever heard before,” Engen said. “She really tapped into all these different musical styles. Of course, there’s a huge pop influence musically that you can hear, but there’s also great gospel influences, disco influences, rock ‘n roll influences; she really pulled out all the stops.”

From shoe stomping to conveyor belts, the dance numbers all build to the rousing “Raise You Up.”

“I really love the final number,” Engen said. “It’s so exciting and vibrant and it really is such a high note to go out on … There’s this great moment in the song where we count the six steps of success.”

How do each of these steps apply to the show itself?

1) Pursue the truth.

“I think that’s always the goal of every actor in the show, not only to keep the show fresh but to keep the show truthful every night,” Engen said. “So if you really are believing what you’re saying and you’re really looking at your scene partner in the eye, you really are sharing a moment of truth. If you pursue that throughout the whole show, the show stays fresh and real and new and live every night.”

2) Learn something new.

“Oh my gosh, I’ve learned so many new things working on this show,” Engen said. “These musical styles, you kind of operate in a different world when you’re singing … You’re using a different part of your voice. You’re really leaning into this music rather than just singing the notes on the page. So learning how to approach every song in this show in a different capacity was something totally new.”

3) Accept yourself and you’ll accept others too.

“That is one of the biggest messages in the show,” Engen said. “This show is about acceptance and tolerance and patience and not judging a book by its cover. I think that is a lesson we learn every day throughout life. Certainly in this current political climate, the world would be a much more beautiful, harmonious place if everyone would just accept themselves and inherently accept others too.”

4) Let love shine.

“If you lead with love, my goodness, you will be a much happier person,” Engen said. “So approaching everything with an open heart and love is a huge lesson. It’s like being a kid again. That’s how kids approach everything. It’s so simple and joyful and truthful.”

5) Let pride be your guide.

“Absolutely. I think everyone should have a sense of pride in what they do and who they are,” Engen said. “We’ve all had our individual struggles, but to have pride in that journey and to know that you’ve come out of your struggles stronger than ever is something to be very prideful about.”

6) You change the world when you change your mind.

“We see this every night when we do the show, that we really are affecting people in a way that’s really unexpected,” Engen said. “People tell us all the time, ‘I wasn’t sure what to think,’ but this show has really opened their hearts and opened their minds to accept people for who they are.”

Such a message is even more poignant after the recent massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. If only the gunman could have seen a show like “Kinky Boots” to undergo a similar change of heart as the character of Don, the gruff factory foreman who at first mocks Lola, then opens his mind by the end.

“I just love when Don says that final line, ‘You change the world when you change your mind,'” Engen said. “People just go nuts … It’s such a celebratory moment … It gives me goose bumps every night.”

Click here for ticket information to “Kinky Boots.” Listen to the full interview with Tiffany Engen below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Tiffany Engen of 'Kinky Boots'

Jason Fraley | June 22, 2016 5:43 pm

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The post ‘Kinky Boots’ brings Lauper’s Tony tunes to Kennedy Center appeared first on WTOP.

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