The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical “Kinky Boots” runs March 29-April 3 at the Fox Theatre.
THIS IS THE STORY of a boy whose father doesn’t understand or connect with him, who likes to wear his mother’s high heels when no one’s looking.
At New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a teacher sees something in this boy and, in an acting piece, casts him as a female wrestler.
It changes everything.
At 20, with newfound courage, this boy-turned-man begins performing in drag and realizes he’s found his place: onstage in 4-inch heels, feather boas and lush false eyelashes.
When he’s back in his man suit — heels, makeup and glitter gone — he’s also back to feeling insecure.
This could be the back story for Simon, the drag queen who performs as Lola in the 2013 musical Kinky Boots. In reality, it’s the story of J. Harrison Ghee, who, since November, has played Simon/Lola in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical.
Growing up in in Fayetteville, N.C., Ghee (as in “gee-whiz”) was a self-described “bold child who questioned everything,” never found a comfort level with his father, a Southern Baptist pastor with doctorates in history and philosophy. But he always enjoyed performing — from leading prayers and singing in church to using a microphone.
“I always say that when I was born, I didn’t come out crying — I came out singing.” With Kinky Boots, he says, “What I am living through right now, these are the moments that I only dreamed of.”
Ghee’s mother, who also sings, recently told her son he’s living her dream, too. His dad, who has come around slowly, has seen his son in Kinky Boots twice.
The first time, he expressed that he was “proud of me,” Ghee says. “But the second time, it really landed with him. He could not stop saying to me: ‘You are my son, you are my son,’ and now he runs through the streets saying ‘I’m Lola’s proud father! I’m Lola’s proud father.’ ”
As a fan and fellow performer, Ghee could not stop watching backstage videos of Billy Porter (Broadway’s Tony-winning Lola) getting into makeup and preparing to go onstage.
It’s who — and what — you know
Ghee’s chance came at a casting call for another musical. He knew the agency involved also handled Kinky Boots, so he dropped off a headshot and resume with an impassioned cover letter expressing his interest in Kinky Boots and his deep connection to Lola’s story, including his struggles with his father.
The audition call came. Several rounds later, Ghee was hired to tour as a swing (covering several ensemble roles) and understudy the outrageous Lola. Eventually, he and Lola became one.
Ghee, 26, sees many similarities between himself and Simon/Lola does. “Lola has this constant struggle to be true to himself as Simon,” Ghee says. “He just wants to be accepted for who he is, and he wants the same for others. That’s how I live my life.
“I get to use all of the mess, per se, of my personal life to help raise people up every night. When I sing ‘Hold Me in Your Heart’ and ‘Not My Father’s Son,’ I am pulling on people’s heartstrings, making them think about their own relationships.”
The musical, based on the 2006 movie of the same name, is inspired by real events. It whisks audiences from a struggling English shoe factory to the glamorous catwalks of Milan. It follows the story of Charlie Price, whose family owns that factory, and Charlie’s efforts to make it profitable again. Charlie and Lola connect when s/he needs someone to make her fashionable but sturdy new stilettos and boots.
Mikey Piscitelli, Ghee’s dresser and best friend on the tour, is Ghee’s confidant. “He feels my energy and knows when it’s a great day or when it’s an off-day. He’s always there to give me whatever I need, whether it’s a Sour Patch Kid or a tissue.”
Piscitelli has his hands full. Lola has 13 costume changes, including one that must be done in 45 seconds. In a two-minute change, Lola goes from full drag into a man’s four-piece suit, and his girly makeup is covered so he looks like a boy again.
As Ghee talks, Piscitelli is “stoning” (covering the boot heels in red crystals and adding beads and rhinestones to the sides) of a new pair of thigh-high boots for the finale. That’s why Piscitelli goes by “broadwaystoner” on Instagram.
That’s show biz for you. Another day, another story, another stop on the road.