Out of all the shows presented at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria this current season, it’s probable that for mainstream theatre audiences, the 1991 off-Broadway musical comedy Pageant is the least known. Don’t let that hold you back. Without reservation, it’s also, surprisingly, the funniest and most satisfying production on ABT’s stage this year. Here’s why.
As the title suggests, Pageant is a musical comedy/parody of a full beauty pageant, the whole show, where everyone in the house, including the audience, is part of the production. The setup is simple, but it comes with a twist.
First, the setup. Each year, Glamouresse Beauty Products puts on a contest that will determine the new Miss Glamouresse. Whoever wins will not only enjoy wearing the crown and all that comes with it but will spend the oncoming year as a cosmetic spokesmodel for the company. Throughout the contest there’ll be everything you’d expect to see at a beauty pageant as each contestant competes in evening gowns, swim-wear, talent, a test run as a spokesmodel promoting some genuinely awful Glamouresse beauty products and an impromptu moment answering real calls on the Beauty Crisis Hotline. There are six contestants vying for the title, each representing a particular region of the country. Now the twist. They’re all played by men.
When the show first opened twenty-five years ago, the idea of seeing men in drag parodying beauty pageants possibly raised more eyebrows and seemed more daring than it does today – society and our cultural attitudes have certainly changed during the last two decades – but the passing of time hasn’t changed the impact of the humor, and Pageant remains as funny as it ever was. A beauty pageant is always rife for parody, but when the contestants sing of having all the right equipment and “… We don’t have to stay on top by acting like a man,” the whole affair becomes so much more effective and certainly much funnier when you know those are really guys strutting around up there. It’s not making fun of women, it’s toying with the absurdity of beauty contests existing in the first place.
The seven-man cast consists of six contestants and a host. The judges come from selected audience members near the front of the house who cast their votes during the last five minutes, meaning that each night there’s a different winner. In other words, no two productions are ever like; even the actors won’t know who’ll eventually wear the crown.
The contestants represent each region of the country, thus there’s Miss Bible Belt (James Roberts, IV) who tells of how she once hit rock bottom to the point where she didn’t even have enough money to buy mascara; Miss Deep South (David Vogel) whose interests cover home economics and cancer research; Miss Industrial Northeast (Eddie Maldonado) who speaks with a thick Hispanic accent, works in a women’s detention center and looks and sounds as though she might have stepped straight out of Don Francisco’s Sabado Gigante; Miss Great Plains (Michael LaMasa) whose hobbies include breeding livestock and enjoys wearing beige; Miss West Coast (Seth Tucker) who is proud of living on the San Andreas Fault and enjoys her many reincarnations by living her life in the past; and from the one state that is most certainly a region unto itself, Miss Texas (Kurtis W. Overby) whose vocation is to work with the beauty impaired.
Then there’s the host. Even though there’s no backstory to the character, you can easily imagine Frankie Cavalier (Jon Gentry) as a squirly, bewigged used-car salesman who regularly hosts karaoke night at a local bar. With his occasional look of bemusement at a contestant’s clueless remark and his lounge-lizard singing, over the years, Frankie has clearly accomplished fake showbiz sincerity to perfection. The illusion of watching a real beauty contest is made all the more complete when the character makes his initial entrance; you’ll find yourself applauding as if you already know him as a local, low-rent celebrity. Gentry is as accomplished a professional as Frankie is not, making everything the character says and does as equally funny as the ‘ladies.’ When standing in a line and dwarfed by those broad-shouldered, big-boned and obviously muscular contestants, at first glance, Frankie looks as though he’s hosting a female body-building contest rather than a beauty pageant, and that only adds to the humor.
Perhaps funniest of all, besides the contestant’s performance element that looks more like a nightmare version of America’s Got Talent, are the individual promotions for the Glamouresse Beauty Products. Miss Bible Belt promoting the Smooth As Marble Spackle that covers those deeper than normal skin cracks – you apply it with a trowel – is funny enough, but Miss West Coast’s demonstration of the Glamouresse Snap-On Deodorant delivers the show’s most undeniably, laugh-out-loud, funniest moment of the year. When Seth Tucker, who also directed and choreographed the show – he was also in the off-Broadway production – demonstrates the effectiveness of the product and then gets his first whiff, the look on his/her face is priceless.
The show’s overall effectiveness would have benefited from a smaller, more intimate setting, but Geoffrey Eroe’s set design does a fine job of filling ABT’s wide stage with glam and glitter, while all other credits, from Amanda Gran’s wigs, Josh Luton and Lottie Dixon’s costumes, Dan Efros’ lighting, Joshua Tobin’s sound, to Lizzie Hatfield’s music direction are exactly as the show requires. Pageant is a hoot, and the most fun of all is you’ll actually find yourself rooting throughout for your favorite contestant. And don’t be disappointed if she doesn’t win. Make a return visit and you never know, she may get the crown the next time around.
Pictures courtesy of Kat Barnes
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official ABT website