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A CurtainUp Review
Pageant: The Musical
Who would have thunk that this little show (book and lyrics by two-time Tony nominee Bill Russell of Side Show and The Last Smoker in America fame ) would have had so much spunk and longevity in it? It began its life Off Broadway at the Blue Angel in May 1991 and then winged its way to the West End for a year-long engagement before taking flight again and being staged round the globe. It came full circle last February, returning to New York for the first time in 20 years at the Red Lacquer Club as a five-evening sold-out benefit. And with the current iteration coming on the heels of the Gay Pride Parade in June it gains a kind of political correctness that isn't pushy in the least.
The six male performers playing the beauty contestants know how to flex their comedic muscles and unapologetically are in overdrive with ambition to claim and wear the tiara. Each actor plays a wannabe representing a geographic swath of the country and all deliver their regional stereotype with pizzazz and a wink: There's Mick Cearley (Miss Great Plains), Nic Cory (Miss Industrial North East), Alex Ringler (Miss Texas), Marty Thomas (Miss Deep South), Seth Tucker (Miss West Coast), and Curtis Wiley (Miss Bible Belt).
Since Pageant relies on very broad humor to drive home its points, it is only fitting that each competitor remains red, white, and true to their respective region and home terrain. So expect some very loud Bible thumping from Wiley's Miss Bible Belt, some colossal livin' large from Ringler's Miss Texas, a breezy-and-salty style from Tucker's Miss West Coast, a drawl and a half from Thomas' Miss Deep South, a Mother Earth perspective from Cearley's Miss Great Plains, and a gritty-city realism from Cory's Miss Industrial North East.
Unsurprisingly, John Bolton is pitch-perfect as the Host, aptly named Frankie Cavalier, who keeps the contest moving cavalierly forward over its intentionally rough and smooth patches. Bolton has an arsenal of jokes and patter that pepper the Talent, Swimsuit, and Evening Wear categories of the contest and ensures that the parade of beauties are always squarely in the audience and judges' eyes.
The beauty commercials imbedded into the pageant are hilariously over the top! Each commercial points up our culture's preoccupation with physical beauty in the classical sense of the word. Yes, there's even one spiel that markets a miraculous "spackle" for filling-in one's large facial pores, scars, or you-name-it. It's a great parody of cosmetic products that promise instant cures for facial imperfections. By drawing on names of products typically found at your local hardware store, it not-so-subtly underscores that this pageant is male, not just via its gender-bending, but how it retools (pun intended!) its commercials with macho terms and textures.
At each performance, a handful of audience members are invited to vote for the eligible contestants and help to decide who has that "extra something" that will qualify him to be the "winner" at the finale. And if you are not included among the judges, not to worry. Everybody is welcome to cheer on and plug their favorite contestant. And, in the intimate Davenport Theatre, even if you are sitting in the very last row, your voice is likely to be heard on the stage.
Paul Tate Depoo III's minimalist stage set,in collaboration with Paul Miller and Kirk Fitgerald’s lighting, gives ample room for the parade of male beauties to traverse the small stage and strut their glamorous stuff. Stephen Yearick’s costumes sparkle in glaring kitsch-style and are just right for this cartoon. There’s Albert Evans’ original music and witty lyrics, with Micah Young’s musical direction and Mark Hartman’s musical supervision that adroitly balances Evan’s original music with a medley of melodies inspired from Stephen Foster, songs from the Great American Songbook and pop hit tunes. The show’s well-orchestrated music immediately creates a nostalgic mood and the appropriate regional atmosphere for each contestant in their dramatic moments (the thrilling and disappointing alike).
Beauty pageants might have peaked in the 60s. But as directed by Matt Lenz, this one's not dated a whaiff. Seeing men in drag is always be outrageous fun. What's more, this show invites one to get up close and personal to a nearly century-old American tradition (the Miss America Beauty Pageant premiered on the famed boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1921) and shakes it out to perfection.