04 August 2014

'Pageant' (1991)

[One day recently, when I was out and about, I spotted an ad on a phone booth in my neighborhood announcing the coming of a musical called Pageant.  I’d been out of town for several weeks, so I hadn’t seen them before.  Now, years ago (1991, it turns out), I reviewed a show called Pageant, a drag beauty contest, and I wondered if this was the same play.  I didn’t remember to look it up by the time I got home, however, but when I finally did, I found that the production is billed thus: “Like every beauty pageant you've seen before, Pageant features contestants desperately vying for a glittering tiara.  With swimsuit, talent, and evening gown competitions – the show includes both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! Unlike some beauty pageants you've seen before, the female contestants are all played by men.  And the audience gets to select the winner each night.  Filled with excitement and suspense, but first and foremost, beauty.”  Well, the new production opened on 14 July, and on the 15th, the review was in the New York Times.  It is the same play, a parody of beauty pageants, which ran for 462 performances Off-Broadway from 23 April to 7 June 1991, with subsequent productions in Los Angles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, Sarasota, Oklahoma City, Richmond, St. Paul, and London, as well as Australia and Japan.  I saw the performance in May and my notice for the première appeared as “Skin Deep and Heart Shallow” (which referred to Pageant and another, unrelated play) in the  New York Native on 20 May 1991.  I’ve reedited it slightly so that it’ll make more sense to a reader 13 years later (and, in some instances, just because I wanted to).]


The conceit of the musical spoof, Pageant, which has a book and lyrics by Bill Russell [later Side Show, 1997-98] and Frank Kelly and music by Albert Evans, at the Blue Angel, a night club on on West 44th Street in the Theatre District, is a competition for Miss Glamouresse.  The send-up is that all the contestants are men in drag, including evening gown and swimsuit.  The joke is that the book and, especially, the lyrics constantly refer to the femininity of the contestants (the opening number is “Natural Born Females”), whereas it is clear they are men.


The drag is somewhere between Corporal Klinger, Jamie Farr’s character on MASH, and La Cage aux Folles.  The dancers are not especially feminine and their maleness is only partly disguised.  While they have shaved their legs and underarms, they have distinctly male dancers’ bodies, particularly their arms which, though not exactly hirsute, are unshaven.  We are obviously expected to note the dichotomy of the dancers’ maleness and the femininity of the text and behavior.


Pageant includes two other jokes, too.  One is that the sponsor, Glamouresse Cosmetics, markets absurd products, samples of which the contestants hawk.  We are treated to demonstrations of Lipsnack, a lipstick that doubles as a snack for women with no time to eat on the run—it comes in 27 flavors from “Roast-Beef Red to Poached-Salmon Pink . . . Yum!”—and Smooth-As-Marble Facial Spackle, a make-up for pitted skin which also comes in “heavy duty for gouges and scars.” 


The other joke is that the contestants aren’t terribly good at this stuff.  Their talent exhibitions are all slightly off, and tacky.  Miss Industrial Northeast (Joe Joyce), who studies hairstyling by mail (“The lines at the post office wear me out!”), plays the accordion, but inexpertly; Miss Texas (Russell Garrett), who “works with the beauty-impaired,” does a lariat-twirling routine (with a toy horse), but she’s no Will Rogers; Miss Deep South (David Drake), who is a double major in Home Economics and Cancer Research at Miss Frink’s Female Academy, doesn’t quite keep her lips still in her ventriloquist act.  The whole thing is intentionally pretty hokey.


The performances, which also include Randl Ash (Miss Bible Belt), John Salvatore (Miss West Coast), Dick Scanlan (Miss Great Plains) and J. T. Cromwell as M.C. Frankie Cavalier, are energetic and skillful, and the evening, at an hour and forty-five minutes, goes by pleasantly.  (There was also a billing in the program—called the Beautybill, “an authorized parody edition of ‘Playbill,’” according to a note on the back, for this production—there’s also a “Standby Contestant,” Miss U.S. Territories and Possessions, played by Tony Parise.  I presume Parise, who also served as co-choreographer, would step in if, for any reason, one of the regular contestants cannot fulfill her duties.)  I particularly liked Miss Bible Belt’s sermon-in-song, “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus” (“The Bible’s my bank book!”)  The cabaret locale encourages drinking (no minimum; you can have dinner, too) and rooting for the contestants, and this obviously helps in the enjoyment.  The chap behind me had a hell of a time cheering and laughing, and there were not a few whistles from the house.  Frankie Cavalier picks five “judges” from the audience (they are preselected) who elect Miss Glamouresse 1991 and her runners-up, so the outcome is different each night. 


You’ll get the most out of Pageant if you either hate beauty contests or love them, but have a sense of humor about it.  If you don’t care one way of the other, you’ll find less in this show—conceived, directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom [later Side Show; The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1997-2000; Broadway revivals of Flower Drum Song, 2002-03, and Bye Bye Birdie, 2009-10]—to keep your interest.


[I didn’t cover the physical production in the Native review, so I’ll list the credits here at least.  Pageant’s set was designed by Daniel Ettinger, the costumes were by Gregg Barnes, the hair and wigs by Lazaro Arencibia, and the lights by Timothy Hunter.  James Raitt (who was a cousin of actor John Raitt and his daughter, singer Bonnie Raitt) provided the orchestrations and musical arrangements and also directed the three-musician ensemble of piano (Raitt), drums (Jeff Potter), and synthesizer (Martin Erskine).  (I believe all the principal members of the production team for the première of Pageant are still alive except Raitt, who died in 1994 at 41.)]


*  *  *  *

[Since my old review is so short (being only half of that week’s column), I thought it might be useful to run New York magazine’s and the New York Times’s original reviews, both of which were also rather brief, as well.]



by John Simon

New York, 27 May 1991


But color is certainly not lacking from Pageant, which may be the rowdiest yet also sweetest farce in New York today.  Playing at the Blue Angel nightclub, this drag-show takeoff on Miss America and other beauty pageants is both angelic and a bit blue.  Written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, directed by Robert Longbottom, and with albert Evans’s music arranged and orchestrated by James Raitt, this deft parody, funny without being too fey, satirical without becoming too savage.  It is in fact consistently droll and often a hoot, and everyone involved in it did and does handsomely, which is arguably better than prettily.  The men enacting the competing beauty contestants are neither pretty nor effeminate, which considerably heightens the hilarity.  Go!


[This was part of an omnibus review covering several performances, and the headline is a travesty of States of Shock, the title of a Sam Shepard play running at the American Place Theatre which Simon obviously didn’t like.]


*  *  *  *


by Stephen Holden

New York Times, 8 May 1991


There has never been a beauty contest quite like the Miss Glamouresse competition, a fake television special being held nightly at the Blue Angel under the title “Pageant.” At each performance, a panel of judges selected from the audience chooses between the same six finalists who compete in the traditional categories and hawk such Glamouresse beauty products as Smooth-as-Marble Facial Spackle and a nutritious lipstick called Lip Snack that comes in 27 shades and flavors.


When Frankie Cavalier (J. T. Cromwell), the ceremony’s leathery-faced answer to Bert Parks, introduces the contestants, he lauds them for being “each and every one a natural-born female.” They are not, of course. Amusingly costumed as parodies of regional stereotypes, Miss Texas (Russell Garrett), Miss Great Plains (Dick Scanlan), Miss Deep South (David Drake), Miss Industrial Northeast (Joe Joyce), Miss West Coast (John Salvatore) and Miss Bible Belt (Randl Ash) are drag performers who gleefully caricature the smiles, swivels and teary-eyed nonsense of it all.


For her talent segment, Miss Great Plains, whose name is Bonnie Louise Cutlett, delivers a screamingly funny dramatic recitation called “I Am the Land,” which begins portentously with the lines, “I am a handful of dirt,” and goes downhill from there. Karma Quinn, the new-age-fixated Miss California, lurches through an interpretive dance called “The Seven Ages of Me.”


Ruth Anne Ruth, Miss Bible Belt, sings a money-obsessed country-gospel song, “Banking on Jesus,” which declares, “My wealth earns interest that’s eternal.” Miss Industrial Northeast, Consuela Manuela Raffela Lopez, clomps around on roller skates while playing “The Beer Barrel Polka” on accordion.


“Pageant,” which was conceived, directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom and written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, belongs to the same camp genre as the popular musical revue “Forever Plaid,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to squeaky-clean male pop groups of the 1950’s.  [Forever Plaid, conceived and directed by Stuart Ross, was produced by Gene Wolsk at the Triad Theater (then called Steve McGraw's Theatre) on West 72nd Street, ran for 1811 performances between 20 May 1990 and 12 June1994.  James Raitt was the musical director of both shows. ~Rick] Although its style is broader than “Forever Plaid,” “Pageant” also celebrates and ridicules kitsch American culture with the same sense of enjoyment.


It is also one drag show that is not at all misogynistic. The contestants are portrayed as a lovable bunch of big-boned gals. It is the ritual itself, which forces the contestants to behave like obsequious wind-up toys, that is under hilarious attack. Indeed, the roles could have been played by women. Having them played by men, however, carries the whole charade to another level of zaniness.


[The current revival of Pageant opened for previews on 29 June 2014 at the Davenport Theatre on West 45th Street west of Times Square and is scheduled to run until 1 September.  There have reportedly been a few updates to the script to bring it from 1991 up to 2014 (references to Twitter and Duck Dynasty), but it’s apparently otherwise the same play.  (Other up-dating include the addition of an African-American contestant—Miss Bible Belt—and one with “a thick, vaguely Hispanic accent”—Miss Industrial Northeast; in the première staging, all the cast was Caucasian.)  When I first saw the ad on that phone booth, my second thought, after wondering if it was the show I’d seen all those years ago, was that Pageant didn’t strike me as a play that would have a life 13 years after it first ran.  It was kind of a nonce show. (I confess that I, for one, have no desire to see it again.)  In the Times, Charles Isherwood seems to agree: “[B]ack in 1991, when the show made its debut, the idea of a beauty pageant parody featuring men in drag seemed novel and a little loopy.  Today, when a man in a spangled dress would hardly raise an eyebrow sashaying down Main Street in Disneyland, the concept feels almost quaint.  Beauty pageants, for that matter, have now practically evaporated from mainstream culture.”] 

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