By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Secret Garden runs through May 20 at Theatre Arlington, 305 Main St., Arlington. Call (817) 261-9628.
Lest you think backstage bitchery, outspoken narcissism and superficiality are just inventions for the all-male beauty contest spoof Pageant, check out the Web site that the creators of this internationally successful show have designed (www.pageantthemusical.com). They've devoted a page to 26 fun facts about pageant history from the years 1922 through 2000. Did you know that in 1974, the Miss America scholarship prize for Miss Congeniality was discontinued after 46 contestants voted for themselves? In 2000, the noble "best ideas" was the theme for a Miss America volunteer workshop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with this clause in the guidelines: "Ideas do not have to be related to any particular subject."
So if you're inclined to roll your eyes dismissively at the broad mixture of earnestness and raw ambition on display in this North Texas premiere courtesy of Crossroads Theatre, you haven't spent much time even as a passive witness to the alternative universe of beauty pageants.
Competition has always been fierce because, as someone once observed, the stakes are so low; even in this so-called postfeminist era, those whose scalps ache for that dainty tiara must disguise their drive in some combination of community responsibility and ladylike manners. It would be unfair to brand them all as self-absorbed hypocrites and too generous to dismiss the ickier implications of such enterprises.
Luckily, Crossroads Theatre director Michael Serrechia understands that there's a narrow but fertile path between these two views; he guides his seven quite capable performers through this crevice, and the audience emerges the more entertained because he's kept the actors on a humane, if not necessarily dignified, track. The fake contestants from various American regions and ethnicities are single-minded and sincere, determined that their vision of a better world--be it through gospel music, makeup counseling, performance art or handpuppetry--will be realized with them at the center of the solution.
Ten years after the musical premiered in New York, Dallas proves tardy in finally getting Pageant produced. Audiences from Berlin to Baltimore, London to Houston have already watched the "ladies" created by writers and lyricists Bill Russell and Frank Kelly--working with composer Albert Evans--take their turns on the runway. Crossroads Theatre has smartly dusted and polished the art-deco Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park for an environment that feels as cozy as one of those 1950s live-TV studios viewed through a two-camera setup. This closeness helps to defuse past critics of other productions. They've pitched two camps of complaint in a marshy field of lukewarm praise: first, that satirizing beauty contests is redundant, and last, that boys in frocks have been put to far more socially incisive uses than the frolicsome Pageant would ever dream of exploring. I daresay the creators would agree with both.
Still, those bemoaners miss the potential this show has to re-energize an ancient theatrical tradition from the smug throes of modern irony. Back when pretty, effete boys were swooning in butch Romeo's arms at the Old Globe, drag was a juicy chance for actors to really act. These days, city clubs feature embittered gay androids sneering stridently through heavily lashed stand-up acts, and movie studios have christened countless (officially) straight actors as brave for donning mascara and blush, thus bolstering their status as, well, hetero actors who are brave. Someone must fuse the extremes of irony and ability if drag will retain any relevance. Right now, commentary must be side-saddle, implicit and will only be achieved by girly men trained to use dramatic techniques to sway audiences. In Crossroads' Pageant, they're sneaky with their talent, articulate and convincing first, so in the best moments, we'll be hopeless prey, blindsided by their caustic commentary.
Dallas' version doesn't play up the fact that these are men in women's roles; it rejects that pose for the slapstick posture, as when Miss West Coast (Jim Frederick) bends backward and hip-thrusts the air during the "Love" segment of her "The Seven Ages of Me" talent entry. (It's a rapid recount of her seven repetitious reincarnations.) Ms. W.C. is a stoned blond believer, and Frederick demonstrates an organic spaciness whose acuity nicely mirrors the rest of the contestants. Miss Texas (the statuesque, big-haired and irreplaceable Coy Covington) attempts a Texas tap shoe in punishing high heels and fields an anonymous Beauty Crisis Hotline question about what makeup a pregnant East Texas wife should wear during the videotaped birth of her baby.
Read further, and if you find yourself snickering at the situations, rest assured the actors usually flesh them out to belly laughs. Miss Bible Belt (John Garcia) injects evangelical testimony despite constant warning glances and finally gets her full say with the gospel tune "I'm Bankin' on Jesus," in which salvation metaphors and Wall Street investment lingo are interchangeable; Miss Industrial Northeast (Victor Guerrero) is a curly-maned Latina on Rollerblades who proudly represents the women's prison where she's a receptionist ("See deese earrings?" she says, flashing a pair of silver lobe-danglers to the audience. "Dey made dem in da ma-cheen chop").
Pageant boasts a cavalcade of American types whose good disgraces should be offensive only to the most militant of group-think members; their phony gender is merely a spicy-gimmicky layer in this party dip. Crossroads Theatre and director Serrechia establish a certain kind of subtlety--though some have called it cowardice, for either aiming at or resisting a wide target--that's interested mostly in energetic and detailed entertainment value. Because their first goal is character, not politics, they make you laugh and allow speculation over who deserves to dominate in a wide field of competing worldviews.
In an urban area like Dallas-Fort Worth, you'll often find professionally and/or academically trained stage artists who decline to become members of Actors Equity: There are numerous talented and audacious small and midsize troupes that simply lack the resources to hire more than one (or any) Equity actors, and so folks who want to stay put and work in the broadcast industry here oftentimes find their prospects limited by union membership. That makes the line between "community" and "professional" theater sometimes very smudgy indeed. For instance, Theatre Arlington has operated under the "community" moniker for 28 years now, and its play selection often suggests this; note Catch Me If You Can and No Sex, Please, We're British coming up this summer. But its current production, the North Texas premiere of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, really knocked me over with the artistry and authority of its design and performances. All the problems with this fleet-footed and visually diverse (on a small scale, thanks to designers Jorge Lopez-Aguado, Ana Pettit and Dusty and Drenda Lewis) production lie with the authors. Twenty-eight songs are just too many to develop from a children's book of such narrative spareness (but, admittedly, psychosexual depths).
I won't belabor the already overdiscussed psychoanalytic overtones of Burnett's tale being a parable about adolescence, and refreshingly, director B.J. Cleveland doesn't either. He lets us adults with dirty minds enjoy a sexuality primer that is also a family spectacle. Mary (Madeleine Rady) invades and overturns the frigid Misselthwaite Manor household of her lonely uncle, Archibald (Stan Graner), who is grieving over the death-during-childbirth of his wife, Lily (Jennifer Ducate Lehman). Mary herself lost both parents to cholera while living in India; Theatre Arlington's show gorgeously intermingles the child's Indian past and English present, and the ghosts that dwell in both. The technical decision to put microphones on each actor resulted in occasional distortion but was worth it to have Lehman as Lily sing in an electronically processed, ethereal voice. Rady and Ross Neuenfeldt as Colin, Archibald's bedridden and obstinate son, perform with a slightly wicked precociousness straight out of Roald Dahl; Colin is wont to declare, "I'm dying!" less as a lament and more as a boast, while Mary spins into a demon-possessed dervish fit to avoid being shipped out of Misselthwaite. These two small actors are very big ingredients in an elaborate musical ensemble.