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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

(left to right) Seth Tucker, Alex Ringler, Nick Cearley, John Bolton, Curtis Wiley, Marty Thomas, and Nic Corey.
Photo by Jenny Anderson

Who was the last famous Miss America? When's the last time you even watched the telecast? If you can't answer these questions, don't fret: Beauty contests have spent the last few decades falling seriously out of fashion. But they, and their glitzy, goofy memories, are still potent enough to fuel the revival of Pageant that just opened at the Davenport Theatre. And thank goodness for that: Otherwise we may have missed this cheeky and charming serious send-up that almost—almost—makes you long for a return to those good-old, carefree days.

What makes this 1991 musical, which was written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly (book and lyrics) and Albert Evans (music), from a concept by Robert Longbottom, work is as much its fidelity to its concept as the theme that's its reason for being. Pageant depicts a knock-out struggle between six contestants for the coveted title of Miss Glamouresse, a glorified but glittering cosmetics spokeswoman, through the typical departments of evening gown, swimsuit, talent, and so on, as well as practicing their pitches for the hilariously questionable Glamouresse products. And it devotes itself to this so wholeheartedly that it never matters—not for a single second—that all the contestants are played by men.

This is, it should be emphasized, no drag show: The actors are playing women, and by virtue of their "outsider" and "observer" status are able to do it more sharply than actual women, without the intended faux-stylization of more famous, prettied-up tribute artists. So when, for example, Miss Deep South (Marty Thomas), stands at an angle, arches her shoulders, and cocks her elbow (as she's wont to do, well, most of the time), there's no reason whatsoever to believe she's not exactly who or what she says she is.

To some degree or another, the same is also true of Miss Great Plains (Nick Cearley), Miss Industrial Northeast (Nic Corey), Miss Texas (Alex Ringler), Miss West Coast (Seth Tucker), and Miss Bible Belt (Curtis Wiley), though Thomas seemed to me the most convincing in voice, body, and soul. But there are plenty of reasons to fall in love with all of them, with Ringler's leather-fringed attitude, Wiley's ironclad sanctimoniousness, and especially Cearley's confused exuberance (his wide-eyed, deadpan glares at critical moments are priceless), leading the way. And as the host for the evening, Frankie Cavalier, John Bolton brings just the proper amount of smarmy, plasticky, overcaffeinated drive to a role that, in less nimble hands, could become annoying or invisible altogether.

With Matt Lenz's sure-handed direction, that's hardly a fear for anyone; Shea Sullivan's choreography evokes every bit of the proper aesthetic without making it as eye-rolling as its potential would indicate. Paul Tate DePoo III's scenic design (on the stage of Forbidden Broadway, which shares the theater for another week), properly blends spangles and creaminess, and is lit with knowing garishness by lighting designers Paul Miller and Kirk Fitzgerald. And, certainly, costume designer Stephen Yearick has devised a choice set of clothes for each of the women, highlighting their personalities and their, ahem, assets just as uproariously as the performers themselves do. Just about everything makes a vital contribution to the bright spirits at play.

That's good, because Russell and Kelly sometimes labor a bit too noticeably for things to unfold completely stumble-free. They strike most comedically true during the "spokesmodel" spots, when the various women must hawk absurd Glamouresse releases ranging from nutritious lipstick, ozone-repairing hairspray, deodorant apparel, and so on, and the performers are scarcely better than during these scenes. But if the rest of the show is unquestionably authentic, the humor comes less easily with the repetition necessary to get everyone into the spotlight time and time again; robustly defined though these characters may be, it's difficult to maintain the same level of entertainment throughout the swimsuit section (which, let's face it, derives entirely from one joke) or the talent competition, which causes the action to sag at inopportune moments. And with the exception of the numbers, mostly for Frankie, that oh-so-gently tweak the conceit ("Natural-Born Females" and "Something Extra"), the score, despite Evans's catchy and appropriately cheesy music (unleashed with tremendous gusto by conductor-pianist Micah Young and drummer Shannon Ford), at best falls on the higher end of serviceable.

Not that you'll care too much once the promenading and especially the voting (using audience judges) take place. There's no shortage of liveliness on hand to ensure that the glamor is present and the ending is a nail-biter. I admit to being stunned by the winner the night I saw the show, but my surprise (and perhaps disappointment?) quickly evaporated. Pageant and its participants are so much fun, there are no losers anywhere in the house.

Through October 26
Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45 Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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