Sunday, September 28, 2014

These Queens Have "Something Extra"

Review: Pageant

The glamorous ladies of the Miss Glamoresse pageant are sure to entertain.

Between the runaway success of Broadway's Kinky Boots and the continually growing popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race (which is incidentally the best reality show on television, and something you should binge watch *immediately* if you aren't familiar with it), drag is definitely having a cultural moment. Which is why it makes perfect sense to bring back the 1991 Off-Broadway musical Pageant, a hysterical sendup of beauty pageant culture featuring (what else?) men in drag. This 90 minute gem is one of the most giddily entertaining shows in town, and is must-see viewing for anyone with even the mildest interest in musical theatre and/or drag.

The setup of Pageant is simplicity itself: six contestants, having already won their regional beauty pageants, convene onstage to vie for the title of Miss Glamoresse and the accompanying spokeswoman job. They compete in staple categories like the Eveningwear, Swimsuit, and Talent portions, along with Glamoresse-specific areas like Spokeswoman and the aptly named Beauty Crisis Counseling. Adding an element of unpredictability to the show, five audience members are chosen at random to act as judges, meaning the final outcome changes each night.

The entire affair is a lovingly tongue in cheek mockery of high stakes pageants like Miss America, howling funny in its satire without ever coming across as judgemental or mean spirited. I haven't laughed this much at a show in years, and at one point I was literally crying from laughing so hard. For all the absurdity on display - and there is plenty of it - the contestants play things remarkably straight. Outside of a few throwaway lines there is little acknowledgement that these ladies are actually men, which prevents the show from becoming self-aware commentary and ensures the laughs come from character and situation rather than overly clever metatheatrics. The zinger-filled book by Frank Kelly and Bill Russell keeps everything moving at a breezy pace, and while Albert Evans' score isn't particularly memorable it gets the job done and is an excellent framework for Kelly and Russell's cheeky lyrics.

All of the Miss Glamoresse contestants do a fabulous job crafting fully formed personas based on wonderfully evocative regional titles like Miss Great Plains or Miss Bible Belt, and every audience member will surely have a favorite. Alex Ringer's Miss Texas is especially beguiling, an old-school pageant queen channeling the poise, beauty, and barely disguised disdain often attributed to old southern money; to use drag parlance, she is "serving Dallas realness." Ringer's talent portion is the real deal, a delightfully kitschy and athletic tap routine complete with six shooters and a toy pony. And should it become clear that Miss Texas won't be winning the night's competition (as happened at the performance I saw), Ringer's underplayed, slow burn reaction is pure comedic genius.

As the aforementioned Miss Bible Belt, Curtis Wiley brings the house down with his gospel-influenced number "I'm Banking on Jesus." Wiley perfectly modulates his God-loving, "praise him" shtick, heightening it enough to elicit deep belly-laughs without crossing the line into abject mockery. Seth Tucker plays Miss West Coast as a blonde bombshell with minimal understanding of what's happening, and her Spokeswoman segment (too good to spoil here) is one of the night's biggest laughs. Swing Fred Odgaard was on in the role of Miss Great Plains the evening I attended, with a "you betcha" persona clearly inspired by the great Midwest-set pageant film Drop Dead Gorgeous. (Pageant actually shares a lot of comedic sensibilities with that cult classic film.) Odgaard wasn't quite as comfortable in his role as the rest of the performers - understandable given his minimal rehearsal time - but his interpretive poetry "talent" still had me in stitches.

Nic Cory is underutilized as Miss Industrial North East, although he milks what he has for all its worth. Marty Thomas' Miss Deep South suffers from too much overlap with the other contestants (Miss Texas and Miss Bible Belt cover similar territory in a more defined, specific way), although Thomas scores big points for his patently ridiculous ventriloquist act. And as the ringmaster of the entire spectacle, John Bolton is suitably charming even if his stage time steadily decreases as the evening goes on.

You would be hard pressed to find a more entertaining 90 minutes than Pageant, and the show has thankfully been extended into the New Year, giving you plenty of chances to see these beauties for yourself. There's a wholesome sweetness to this pageant that belies a simpler time, yet the show feels as fresh and hilarious as if it were written yesterday. Come prepared to laugh, heartily and often, at one of the best theatrical productions of the year. As Bolton's host character sings towards the beginning of the show, these queens definitely have "something extra."

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