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Tiara Up There

Gender-Bending Beauty Contest Never Drags

Ty Hreben as the oily host of Rep Stage's Pageant

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/28/2001


Book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, music by Albert Evans, conceived by Robert Longbottom

Beauty pageants, with all their inherent hokeyness and hoary sexual politics, are a fat and easy theatrical target. And men in dresses, with all their hairy-legged gracelessness and broad-shouldered faux femininity, are a fast and easy theatrical gag. Put them together and you have Pageant, a musical skewering of the beauty-contest world wherein six bewigged gents portray the competing ladies. Pretty clever, huh? But while Pageant often goes for the cheap and campy laugh, it does so with such energy, polish, and panache, you won't mind that the 15-year-old play is built upon such a simpleton premise. Director Terry J. Long--whose guys-as-dolls credits include a local rendition of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom--keeps the "ladies" maniacally on the move in this taut and tuneful production.

Of course, one of reasons this Rep Stage show is so slick and seamless is that this is third time Long and the "ladies" have done it. The director has previously staged Pageant at the Spotlighters and the F. Scott Black's Towson Dinner Theatre, and all of the actors in this rendition are veterans of those productions. In this larger-board version, Long finally can stage the beauty show with breathing room. Essentially, Pageant re-creates a competition wherein six regional finalists compete for the title of Miss Glamouresse. It's a show-within-a-show, complete with audience participation (a handful of judges are picked out of the crowd to decide who gets the tiara at the end).

The ladies include Miss Bible Belt (Stuart Goldstone), a bosomy holy roller who looks like Nancy Reagan crossed with Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie. Lanky Brian Jacobs plays Miss Industrial Northeast as a leggy Latina sporting Bride of Frankenstein hair and Twisted Sister makeup. Randolph Hadaway's Miss Texas is a towering tough cookie (her hot pants truly disturb), while Douglas Lisenbee's Miss Great Plains is a doe-eyed daughter of the soil. Miss West Coast (David C. Allen) is an ethereal ditz (past lives and all), while James J. Waltz's Miss Deep South definitely has roots in Tara. Hosting the show is the winking, pointing, pinky-ringed Frankie Cavalier, who Ty Hreben plays slimier then something the cat might cough up on the parlor rug. (Think Chuck Barris in a satin tuxedo.)

Given the setup, musical numbers slip into the action easily, starting with the toe-tapping ensemble number "Natural Born Females." Helping the production's live and lively feel immensely is the three-piece Glamour Tones band (Doug Lawler, Adrien Cox, and Lisa Baker on piano, bass, and drums, respectively). Naturally, the talent component of the competition offers up some tunes, including Miss Bible Belt's Jesus-is-my-banker ditty "Fiscal Advice" (wherein she rhymes "burning shrub" with "Beelzebub"). The cast manages to sing in tune in a ladylike register, and there's a good bit of gam-kicking as well. Mercifully, the bathing-suit competition is not as scary as one might think. The multitude of wigs and dresses are truly spectacular, and the gent's "beautifying" makeup takes two hours to apply (according to a post-show discussion with the director and cast).

In the end, you soon forget that those are men's feet shoved into the pumps. They become real characters--a little stereotypical at times, but all in goofy good fun. Don't be surprised if you of start rooting for a favorite lady (I had my fingers crossed for Miss Great Plains), though it's the audience-member judges (who hold up numbered cards to select a winner) who have the ultimate say. Miss Deep South won at my show. While Pageant's quality is constant, the end is different every time.

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