Pageant, Davenport Theatre, New York – review

Are beauty contests too easy a target for satire? That’s the question initially raised by Pageant, an off-Broadway revival of a 1991 musical conceived by Robert Longbottom, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and music by Albert Evans. With their phony sentiment, altitudinous hair, and rote displays of talent, contests would seem to be their own best parody. Yet Pageant, directed by Matt Lenz, is so good-natured that it is difficult, throughout these interval-less 85 minutes, not to chortle, even if you don’t indulge in the free liquor shots available in the lobby before curtain.

Six contestants vie for the title of Miss Glamouresse, a competition that not only requires them to parade through the usual Miss Universe-type categories – evening gown, talent – but also to prove themselves as on-air marketers: they must sell Glamouresse beauty products such as the Smooth-as-Marble Facial Spackle.

Some references in the script have been updated – producers these days are terrified of anything that doesn’t mention social media – but mostly we watch the 1991 conception. Songs that advance the story are scarce: we listen to ditties constituting the talent portion. Miss Great Plains – who is from Iowa, not part of the Great Plains except to people from the coasts – gives us a dramatic recitation called “I Am the Land”. Miss California provides an interpretive dance called “The Seven Ages of Me”, which is part Martha Graham, part Eiko & Koma.

Leave it to Miss Bible Belt, however, to raise highest the roof beams. She sings “Banking on Jesus”, which, being gospel, tickled the judges, who are selected from the audience, the most. I flashed immediately to the lyric from Martin Short’s Broadway show Fame Becomes Me: “If your plot’s running thin/And the ticket sales are slow/Let a big black lady stop the show.”

Except that the actor playing Miss Bible Belt, Curtis Wiley, is a man. All six contestants, in fact, not to mention the emcee, portrayed by John Bolton, are acted by men. Some will find this too camp a conceit, though they probably wouldn’t be caught dead at Pageant anyway. For me, the all-male gambit has matured since Pageant first sashayed down the runway in 1991. Men are ever more judged by the same impossible standards as women – abs, pecs, hair – so any evening that kids such insanity is fine with me.

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