Hoopla

Heart and sole: Showgirl Lola kicks 'Kinky Boots' into high gear and hopefulness

Lola opens the hearts and minds of the people she meets

Matthew Murphy

Jos N. Banks, a Chicago-based actor and costume designer, steps into Lola’s drag queen persona for the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” the 2013 multiple Tony-winning Best Musical is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for five performance April 13 to 15. Among 13 nominations, it also swept up Tony wins for Banks’ idol, Billy Porter as Lola, as well as awards for choreography, sound design, orchestrations and Cyndi Lauper’s bright and lively musical score.
Matthew Murphy Jos N. Banks, a Chicago-based actor and costume designer, steps into Lola’s drag queen persona for the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” the 2013 multiple Tony-winning Best Musical is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for five performance April 13 to 15. Among 13 nominations, it also swept up Tony wins for Banks’ idol, Billy Porter as Lola, as well as awards for choreography, sound design, orchestrations and Cyndi Lauper’s bright and lively musical score.

Jos N. Banks is well heeled in “Kinky Boots.”

Stepping from 6 feet 1 inch in socks to 6 feet 7 inches nearly every day since mid-August, the Chicago actor and artist, 27, is completely at home in the flashy over-the-knee numbers that help give the feel-good musical its name.

“I’m like a pro now,” he said by phone from a recent tour stop in Elmira, N.Y. The Broadway touring show struts into Hancher Auditorium from April 13 to 15.

“After all the time I spent in rehearsal on heels — even for eight or nine hours a day during tech rehearsals — now doing the show for two hours is nothing.”

It helps that his boots are custom fit to his feet, mapped right down to his pressure points.

“They’re incredible,” he said.

And they provide the visual highlight for the high-kicking tale based on a true story about a gentleman’s shoe factory in Northampton, about 67 miles northwest of London. Times are tough for the family-owned factory, until a chance encounter with drag queen Lola (Banks’ character) opens the door to a whole new market of sky-high footwear for men who perform in exaggerated female attire.

That’s on the sole surface. The soul of the show, however, lies much deeper within Lola and the way she opens the hearts and minds of the people she meets. Banks loves that she’s a catalyst for change. Unlike most lead characters in any given genre, she doesn’t have an arc, or internal transformation.

“That sounds very silly,” Banks said, “but Lola is the only person in the show who stays true to who she is the entire time. She really doesn’t have a change, because she changes everyone around her. I feel like Lola’s arc has already happened before the show begins, so you don’t get to see that journey. All that you see is Lola’s effect on everyone around her, and the positive change.”

For all of Lola’s outrageous makeup and outer trappings, Banks loves her genuine character.

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“One thing I really love and appreciate about Lola is that she’s a real person,” he said. “That may sound simple or maybe even a little silly, but I feel like a lot of times people come to the theater and they see a drag queen, and so they instantly think they have nothing in common with this character.

“But then are moments in the show where Lola actually pares herself down from all of her performance attire, and you see Lola for her birth-given name, Simon. You see that Lola is just a person looking for love and acceptance, just like we all are, and has struggles with her family accepting her and who she is — and that’s something that we can all relate to.

“I don’t know a single person that doesn’t want to be loved or accepted. What’s so remarkable about the role, is playing those dynamics and playing her heart. At the end of the day that’s what shines most in the show.”

Audiences have embraced Lola everywhere the show has played, from final tech rehearsals in Grand Forks, N.D., to theaters coast to coast since September. For some patrons, it might be their introduction to the drag queen realm.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Banks said of the audience reception. “I feel like it’s more of a responsibility to tell this show on the road, primarily because when you see the show in New York or on Broadway, a lot of those patrons are going into it with the heart and idea of the art form of theater — they respect it and it’s something they do often.

“When you’re on the road, you have a lot of patrons who are just season subscribers, so they’re not really looking up show details or researching what the shows are about. They just show up, so ‘Kinky Boots’ really surprises a lot of people, because they don’t even know that it’s about any drag queens or that they’re going to see seven men in drag onstage performing it — let alone once they realize that drag queens are in the show, do they think that they’re going to be moved to tears at any point.

“I feel like all of that emotional shock and how well the score is written, and the script — it’s one of the those things that just transcends you to a place of reflection and it makes you think about how you can be a better person and what your effect is upon this world.

“By the end of the show, we get a standing ovation every single day. No matter how reserved the audiences are at the beginning of the show, by the end, they’re on their feet. I’ve never had an experience like that doing any other show.”

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He’s spent plenty of time in the spotlight since being bitten by the theater bug in high school.

“I used to be very shy and I had a little bit of a speech impediment. I would stutter when I got in front of large crowds,” he said. “A few of my teachers knew that I liked to sing, because I sang in the school concert choir and the gospel choir.”

They encouraged him to try out for the school play, to help him overcome his fear of speaking in front of people. He was cast in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and never looked back.

He’s carved out a career combining his love of theater with his love of art and fashion design. His favorite designs to date also found him pulling double duty. He not only costumed “The Color Purple” in Chicago at age 21, but when it went on the road, he stepped into one of the featured male roles.

He fought long and hard to land “Kinky Boots,” however. He has seen Billy Porter’s Tony-winning portrayal of Lola “six or seven times.” He even won a Porter “biggest fan” contest, and was flown to New York for the live taping of a PBS special at Lincoln Center.

Banks auditioned for the Lola role multiple times. He was called back the past three years before finally landing the coveted character, after four weeks of callbacks, during which he was appearing in another show and costuming three others in Chicago.

He chalks it up to timing and fate.

He hopes audiences take away the “message of love and acceptance,” he said.

“It’s a message that we can all learn, and I feel like right now our nation needs this most. That’s why I hold that close to my heart when I’m telling this story. I don’t think that it’s by coincidence that I’ve been placed on this road, that I’m telling this story to our nation.

“I’ve been preparing for this for years, with all of my callbacks and such. And I just feel like now is the perfect time. I hold that close to my heart, and it makes me feel very warm when people tell me that they feel my heart through my performance.”

 

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Kinky Boots”

WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

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WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 13; 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 14; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 15 (1 p.m. American Sign Language interpreter)

TICKETS: $50 to $90, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/KinkyBoots

SHOW SITE: Kinkybootsthetour.com

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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