Also see Sharon's review of Like Jazz
Beauty pageants are certainly ripe for mocking. Heck, most folks I know that sit down to watch any particular "Miss Whatever" pageant on television don't do so with an earnest desire to see whose answers during the interview round best exemplify the qualities that Miss Whatever stands for. Instead, they watch to make jokes at the expense of a woman who wears stiletto heels with her swimsuit and wants to bring about world peace through accordion music.
Pageant, the musical finally having its Los Angeles premiere, takes a giant swing at beauty pageants. The entire show is a pageant itself, in which six contestants vie for the title of "Miss Glamouresse" (Glamouresse being a purveyor of beauty products). Each contestant has already won a regional title, so they each represent a different part of the country, competing with each other in several different categories - swimsuit, evening gown, spokesmodel and, of course, talent.
The setup allows for maximum comic potential. The smarmy host the contestants fawn over, the horribly cheesy themed production numbers, and the Miss Congeniality award all get sent up here. Having each character represent a region of the country allows for playing up different stereotypes (Miss West Coast is a Scientologist, Miss Deep South mentions being pro-life). The talent competition gives Pageant the chance to make fun of every type of horrible performance imaginable - from bad poetry to the ventriloquist who pastes on a smile and is incomprehensible as she tries to speak through clenched teeth. And for added laughs, the "spokesmodel" competition has each contestant hawking a fictional, yet ridiculous, beauty product.
And what gives it all permission to work is the fact that the contestants are all played by men in drag. A wide-eyed contestant scared to death to be in a pageant might evoke pity - a dangerous thing to happen in a satire - but when she's played by a guy in a dress, there's an added distance from reality that allows the audience to laugh without guilt. Women in the roles just wouldn't be as funny. This is not to say the show is all about drag; with the exception of the occasional double entendre (the host sings that the contestants all have "Something Extra"), the fact that the contestants are actually played by men is largely ignored by the show's script. But it is, without doubt, this concept that enables the show to work.
What doesn't work about the show is that the jokes don't end fast enough. Many of the funny performance sequences go on too long. (In fact, one of the jokes is about an interminable talent presentation.) The bad ventriloquist is funny the moment she doesn't open her mouth, but it's a one-second joke, and her act continues without reaching any further comic heights. The corny "outer space" production number gets full marks for sending up similarly misconceived numbers in real pageants, but it is the concept itself that's funny - we don't have to watch the entire number unfold in order to get the joke.
The funniest sequences in the show end up being the spokesmodel bits, because the laughs there are scripted, and the well-written sequences are packed with them. While there are other, bigger laughs in the show - the initial glimpse of nearly every talent competition costume, for instance - these are the most consistently funny, because the bits don't have any problem coming to an end.
The cast is all solid, with each contestant perfectly inhabiting the collection of silly stereotypes that make up her role. Craig Taggart as Miss Bible Belt is a standout, somehow managing to instill her spokesperson sequence with the friendly condescension that Miss Bible Belt must use daily when trying to convert people. Sam Kivi's Miss Industrial Northeast is also notable, playing up the enthusiasm of the plus-sized contestant from an impoverished Hispanic family who is just so excited to be here.
It all adds up to a silly, playful evening at the theatre, with a few unfortunate bits that go on a tad too long.
Pageant continues at the Hudson Avenue Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and information, click: www.plays411.com
Left Field Productions LLC presents Pageant. Book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly. Music by Albert Evans. Conceived by Robert Longbottom. Directed by Bill Russell. Produced on the Off-Broadway Stage by Johnathan Scharer in Association with Chip Quigley. Original Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by James Raitt. Choreographer Rene' Giglia; Musical Director Ted Hamer; Assistant Director Mike Buttiglieri; Stage Manager Michael Tomaselli; Set Designer Dave Rogge; Lighting Designer Steve Pope; Costume Designer Michael Nielsen; Hair/Makeup Melissa Seifert; Assistant Stage Manager J. Paul Rogen.