‘Pageant’ gender-bends the runway
Shameful as it can be to admit, part of us — especially gay men — secretly enjoy beauty pageants. We can make fun of them, and YouTube can get millions of hits watching Carolina rubes stumble awkwardly through the question session, and the talents can be … well … “specialized,” but all of that is what makes the pageant truly an American art form. (Miss America started around the same time as jazz and modern musical theater. Coincidence?) We only mock the things we love. Well, that, and Michele Bachman.
Pageant taps into that train-wreck fascination with the bizarre subculture of tiaras and satin sashes in the expression of the Miss Glamouresse beauty contest. Six eligible young ladies — played by men in dresses (though they are treated as “genuine girls”) — representing six regions (and six “types”), sashay, saunter, strut and smile across a stage for two hours, waiting anxiously for the judges to declare a winner. (Select audience members at every performance are tapped to serve as judges, and their votes are binding on the girls, meaning the outcome can differ every time.)
Uptown Players’ current production is a rare revival for the company (now in its 13th season), echoing a version from 2006. Aside from the script and music, the versions share little in common: All new cast and director, all new costumes, and a new venue (the Kalita more conducive to an actual pageant stage than the black box of the old KD Studios Theater). Accordingly, even if you saw the last one, there’s something fresh in this staging.
What hasn’t changed much is the appeal of Miss Great Plains. The guileless Midwesterner, so memorably previously played by Cameron McElyea as a flat-chested prairie bride, is turned into a cluelessly perky Junior Leaguer with a Dorothy Hamill hair flip. It may be the best role in the show.
Except that in Dallas, it’s Miss Texas (Walter Cunningham) who gets most of the love … and why shouldn’t she? We all know Miss Texas is always a pageant powerhouse, the steely-eyed beauty who had to duke it out across 10 percent of the contiguous landmass for a shot at glory, and Cunningham’s plastered-on grin makes the determination all the funnier (as does her talent, a patriotic number involving guns and the splits).
All the actors tap into a distinctive characteristic of their character, from Peter DiCesare’s genteel Miss Deep South to Ashton Shawer’s amble-bosomed scold Miss Bible Belt to Sergio Garcia’s shit-kicking Latina, the prison receptionist Miss Industrial Northeast. Even Drew Kelly (unrecognizable as a woman) makes the most of the least rewarding role, that of the New Age-y scatterbrain Miss West Coast. (All are exquisitely costumed by Suzi Cranford and brilliantly bewigged by Coy Covington.)
Holding it all together is B.J. Cleveland, appropriately sleazy as the sweaty master of ceremonies Frankie Cavalier, a man you just know was fired from his role on a sitcom in 1979 and has been clawing his way into the limelight ever since. His throwaway business (leering at Miss Texas, doing double-takes at the girls’ responses) are the interstitials that give Pageant its ineffable quality — subtlety might not be its strong suit, but commitment to the bit is. There are no first- and second-runners-up in comedy.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 4, 2014.