Stage

Teppei Koike and Haruma Miura strut proudly onto the stage in ‘Kinky Boots’

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

For fans of musicals in Japan, the buzz surrounding Teppei Koike and Haruma Miura is reaching a peak thanks to the pair’s newest production: the first-ever Japanese version of the award-winning hit “Kinky Boots.”

It doesn’t hurt that the media refer to them as ikemen (handsome young men), the kind of actors that producers will often cast to ensure female fans buy out a show. For Koike, 30, and Miura, 26, however, starring in “Kinky Boots” may mark a major moment in their respective careers. The Broadway musical won six Tony Awards when it opened in 2013, including for Best Musical and Best Original Score. The West End production garnered three Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical.

The Japan Times sat down with both men at Fuji Television after a TV appearance and during a break from rehearsals, which were being led by the original creative team from Broadway. Koike, who plays main character Charlie, says that the process has been enlightening.

“Since I’ve been working with the American team, who know the play from the inside out, I’ve been making new discoveries about Charlie’s life and his character every day,” Koike says. “At first, I thought ‘Kinky Boots’ was mainly just flamboyant and funny — and it certainly is all that — but it’s also really multilayered and Charlie has all kinds of emotional turmoil that I need to express.”

The musical was adapted by actor and writer Harvey Fierstein from a 2005 British film of the same name. “Kinky Boots” the movie was written by Geoff Dean and Tim Firth and directed by Julian Jarrold. It starred Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby”) as Charlie, who, after the death of his father, becomes the reluctant new owner of his family’s floundering shoe factory in central England, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) in the role of Lola the drag queen who comes to Charlie’s rescue.

The story follows Charlie on a desperate trip to London to hawk his company’s staid brogues from shop to shop, when he sees a woman being harassed by some drunken louts. He intervenes and they attack him instead. Afterward, he regains consciousness in the dressing room of the woman he tried to help — the larger-than-life drag queen Lola (Miura).

Lola dons a pair of women’s thigh-length stiletto boots to do her act, but one of the heels snaps off. Charlie comes to realize that male drag artists are too heavy to wear women’s high heels and, in a flash of inspiration, he decides to save the factory by shifting production to women’s-style footwear for drag queens and cross-dressers — particularly the thigh-high “kinky boots” of Lola’s dreams. It’s a niche market in which there’s no competition.

Charlie hires Lola as an adviser and the pair become close as they deal with a confrontational and traditional workforce, and a shared experience of having been brought up by fathers who never accepted them.

Jerry Mitchell, the show’s director and Tony-winning choreographer, must have also had a flash of inspiration when he decided to pair Fierstein with 1980s pop music icon Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the songs and lyrics for the production — this despite the fact that Lauper had never composed for a musical before. Both Koike and Miura say they “fell in love with” Lauper’s dance-oriented songs, tango rhythms and ballads as soon as they heard them.

“Most of all, though, I was bowled over by the powerful presence of Lola when I saw Billy Porter in that role in New York in 2013,” Miura says. “Right at that moment, I began hoping I would someday get the chance to make a similarly strong impact (in my work), one that could leave such an unforgettable impression.”

Miura, who made his acting debut at the age of 7 in the NHK drama “Agri,” says he has wanted to play Lola ever since he saw “Kinky Boots” in New York, even though the role is usually played by a more muscular, black actor. Miura, despite an award-winning turn in “The Eternal Zero” and landing the lead role in the manga-inspired “Attack on Titan,” is still often pegged as the “gentle prince.” However, his turn as Lola may finally change that — though he admits acting her has been “easier said than done.”

“At first I was so tense, though Teppei always encouraged me,” Miura says. “Now, rather than overthink it, I just concentrate on doing my best.”

After seeing the play, Miura quickly set to work in his head how he would portray Lola if given the chance. After being cast, he assumed all this preperation would mean he would be able to nail the role soon after rehearsals started. However, he says that as the weeks went on he was still striving to shape his Lola.

“My Lola will be visually different from the others, but I think that’s just one of many new things in this ‘Kinky Boots,’ ” Miura says, explaining how the production is being altered to suit the Japanese audience. “I predict that the Japanese actors will aim to express more hakanasa (transience, in this case of human lives) and stress different aspects of the story.”

“And as for Haruma’s portrayal of Lola,” Koike adds, “well it’s so charismatic and splendid that I just keep telling him not to stress out about it and just concentrate on living the role on stage.”

Miura says that to create his Lola he drew inspiration from his favorite actor, Alan Cumming, in the 2012 film “Any Day Now.” In that movie, Cumming plays a struggling musician who, along with his live-in attorney boyfriend, fights for guardianship of a teenage boy with Down syndrome.

In contrast, Koike declares with a chuckle that he hasn’t referred to any other works to develop Charlie. Instead, he says, he “devoted every moment to reading the script and trying to work out his ideas from there.”

“Kinky Boots” is the kind of production that people will likely walk away from having a favorite song or scene. Miura says, after deep consideration, that his comes when Lola visits the shoe factory in Northampton for the first time to collect her boots.

“That is a key scene in which I have to create a vivid and lasting impression,” he says. “I need to make Lola’s entrance into that kind of provincial society a sensational moment.

“In that scene, I also repeat a crucial word, ‘red,’ over and over — a word that actually refers to sex and leads into a big number with the song, ‘Sex is in the Heel.’ The flow is exciting, so right now I am really enjoying that scene.”

While Miura’s favorite moment is one of peak glamor and flamboyance, Koike opts for a more sensitive scene.

“It’s definitely Charlie and Lola’s conversation in the men’s toilet at the factory, when they open up and share episodes that have caused them so much personal turmoil for many, many years,” Koike says. “Their problems are represented by the song ‘Not My Father’s Son,’ and after that the way they behave together is entirely different.”

Reflecting the idea of a shared experience, the two actors’ behavior toward each other hints at a bond that may have come around from them working on the play together. It’s noticeable that the pair address each other by their first names when talking to or about one another instead of using family names as is more common in Japanese conversation and these types of promotional interviews in particular.

It’s going to be a very special treat for Tokyo audiences to see these erstwhile ikemen cast new light on “Kinky Boots.” They’ve definitely got big shoes to fill.

“Kinky Boots” runs at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, from July 21 to Aug. 6. It then moves to the Orix Theater in Osaka from Aug. 13 to 22, before heading to Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4. For details, call 0570-00-3337 (for Tokyo) or 0570-200-888 (for Osaka), or visit www.kinkyboots.jp. The Broadway cast of “Kinky Boots” will perform with Japanese subtitles at Tokyu Theatre Orb from Oct. 5 to 30. For details on that show, call 03-3477-3244 or visit www.theatre-orb.com.