A giant glittering G hangs above the stage of the Davenport Theatre, the proscenium decked out in what appears to be metallic pink wrapping paper. This is the set for the off-Broadway revival of Pageant, a musical comedy from Bill Russell, Frank Kelly, and Albert Evans (The Texas Chainsaw Musical) that takes aim at the exciting world of beauty pageants. Watching this show is kind of like watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory: You'll probably laugh, but then feel a little gross afterward for doing so.
Six contestants (all men in drag) emerge from behind a shimmer curtain (economically recycled from the Forbidden Broadway set) to take part in an epic battle of hairspray and cheesy quatrains spoken through permasmiles. Ushered on by our crooning host, Frankie Cavalier (John Bolton), they compete in several categories in an effort to win the coveted position of Miss Glamouresse 2014. There's the spokesmodel challenge (in which they have to sell us giant prop Glamouresse Cosmetics™), the talent competition (poetry readings and interpretive dance), and the swimsuit category (aka "best tuck"). At the end of the show, five judges selected at random from the audience get to decide who takes home the tiara. It's kind of like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but a whole lot gayer.
Pageant first debuted at New York's Blue Angel in 1991 and like Anita Bryant circa 1977, this old queen is beginning to show her age, references to Twitter and Duck Dynasty notwithstanding. In the era of RuPaul's Drag Race, two decades after Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the sight of a man in a dress is just not as immediately hilarious as it once was. You have to do something with it.
Pageant leans into stereotype with great relish: There's the air-headed tie-dyed Miss West Coast (Seth Tucker), the subtly misogynistic Miss Deep South (Marty Thomas), and the incomprehensibly Latina Miss Industrial North East (Nic Corey). Miss Great Plains (Nick Cearley) has a butch walk that makes her look like she's about to milk a cow at any moment. Meanwhile, Bolton's toothy host is a little too obsessed with this whole setup. It's fine to establish these clichés, as long as you take them somewhere unexpected and surprising. Sadly, Pageant never does, resulting in 90 minutes of musical comedy that regularly verges on minstrelsy.
That's not to say that the performances aren't spectacular and funny on their own. They are. Tucker, in particular, has the expressive face and comic timing of Lucille Ball in her prime. Miss Bible Belt (Curtis Wiley) brings the house down with his high-flying vocals (in an admittedly ho-hum gospel number). As Miss Texas, Alex Ringler has the high cheekbones and even higher self-esteem of a genuine beauty queen. He definitely wins the award for fishiest queen, buoyed along by some killer outfits.
Glitter and sequins and spandex, oh my! Costume designer Stephen Yearick has put together a stunning array of outfits that wouldn't look out of place in a Miss America Pageant. Feathery sleeves seem to be a particular affinity of the designer, but Miss Industrial North East's black embroidered gown is, by far, the most memorable.
Pageant-queen realness is not enough to save this musical from itself, however. If beauty is only skin-deep, so is the humor in this show, and the laughs wear off pretty quickly. Suggestion: Take in the late show (10pm). It will give you plenty of time to pregame. I imagine the jokes will be a lot funnier by then.
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