War on Tiara

Miss Great Plains, Bonnie Louise Cutlett, looks as shaky as a lamb headed for slaughter. She steps forward during the "talent" round of the make-believe beauty competition called Pageant, now onstage at the Uptown Players, and shyly declaims her painfully original poem: "I am a handful of dirt! When you reap my bounty, do you hear the howling winds bearing me away into the angry sky?...Well? Do you?"

Poor little thing. She doesn't stand a chance of taking home the title of "Miss Glamouresse" (named for the contest's made-up makeup sponsor). Chest and hair both flat as Kansas, she is hardly a threat to the five other contestants who possess mad pageant skills. Coiffures lacquered into curls and flips, lips glossed to see-yourself shines, they roll over Miss Great Plains (played by the marvelous Cameron McElyea) like cyclones through a trailer park.

So why does the audience keep cheering for the tender lamb Cutlett to win?



Pageant continues through May 21 at Trinity River Arts Center, 214-219-2718.

Making the crowd pick favorites is part of the crazy fun of Pageant, the best show the gay-centric Uptown troupe has put on since A Man of No Importance over a year ago. As the parody-with-music unfolds, we get to know each determined contender as they strut through swimsuit, evening gown, spokesmodel and talent segments. Five audience members tagged to serve as judges make the final decision, meaning there could be a different "winner" every night. When the big moment comes, the announcement brings shrieks and the new queen walks the runway giving the slo-mo hand wave to her subjects. (At the opening performance, Miss Great Plains finished in the top three, bless her heart.)

The contestants vying to become Miss Glamouresse make a diverse but oddly familiar collection of crown-seekers. Their attention-grabbing gimmicks during the talent portion are the show's high point, each act bizarre but no less wacky than some of those seen on real Miss America Pageants of the past (that contest eliminated "talent"--which was the best reason to watch and mock--when the show was booted from network to cable TV this year). Anybody remember the Miss America finalist who drove a tractor to music? Or the one whose talent was packing a suitcase neatly in two minutes flat? Those were the days, my friend.

Pageant's parade features some inspired jaw-droppers. Miss West Coast bears a striking resemblance to the Sharon Stone of Basic Instinct 2 as she flings her ego through an interpretive dance titled "The Seven Ages of Me." Miss Texas eye-humps at least two of the judges when she aims her six-shooters during her cowboy tap number. Miss Bible Belt bops to the gospel of "Bankin' on Jesus" wearing a black evening frock adorned with sequined panels depicting the Last Supper. Miss Industrial Northeast roller-skates while playing on her squeezebox (that's an accordion, dirty mind). And Miss Deep South is a ventriloquist--wait, is that makeup or just a hint of heavy 5 o'clock shadow on that Dixie chick's cheeks?

There's more to these beauties than meets the eye, of course. Pageant is performed en traviste, with the cast of six "girls" hiding their candy so successfully that intermission brings on a flutter of playbill-flipping as the audience members seek confirmation that there's not a ringer without a boy's humdinger among them.

There isn't, and the scary thing is, a couple of these Adam's-appled turnovers are downright gorgeous. Chris Robinson, playing Miss Texas, bears a come-hither smile and a killer figure that could earn a decent shot at winning Donald Trump's newly slutted-up Miss USA contest. Hell, he/she could probably nail Trump himself in that cute tap-dance get-up. William Blake, in the role of Ruth Anne Ruth aka Miss Bible Belt, looks so fresh and feminine in a red Reba McEntire bouffant and slinky gown, he could take on the lead in Annie Get Your Gun and nobody'd know the difference. The token dumpy one, John Garcia as Miss Deep South, could pass for a young Elena Verdugo in more flattering lighting. Jim Lindsay doubles as over-permed Miss Industrial Northeast and as the departing titleholder who won as a 10 and leaves as a size 18.

Better than mere gaudy she-drag, these performers, under the brilliant direction of Coy Covington (a Dallas actor whose specialty is playing women's roles), do it all without ever winking at their own silliness. These gals compete. Never for a moment do they forget that the success of Pageant depends on making the audience believe in the show's central conceit: that this is a real beauty contest that will result in a real winner.

What gives us permission to laugh so hard is that there are guys in those sparkly gowns. It wouldn't work any other way. Putting an awkward girl in a swimsuit and sending her out to be judged is just too cruel to be entertaining--unless it's a reality show on Fox. But a guy in silver pumps the size of gravy boats? Slap-the-floor funny.

Sending up the ridiculously false standards of beauty upheld by the pageant and cosmetic industries is just one charm on Pageant's jangly bracelet. This show also gets at the absurdity of such things as "spokesmodeling" by having each contestant perform a testimonial for a Glamouresse product. Lipsnack, a combination lipstick and nutritious nibble is, as Miss Texas sells it, "The prettiest protein you'll ever eat." (Double-entendre intended.)

The lizardlike hosts of pageants don't escape the skewering. Pageant's Frankie Cavalier (played by Doug Miller) puts the IOU in "obsequious." There has never been a master of ceremonies with an oilier personality or a faker orange tan. "What girls! What an audience! What loveliness!" he croons. Miller's Cavalier attitude strains Danza-esque insincerity through a set of super-white Philbin-ian dental veneers.

Pageant was conceived by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly (book and lyrics), with music by Albert Evans. Original director Robert Longbottom later worked with Russell on the quirky musical Side Show, about vaudeville's conjoined twin starlets, Violet and Daisy Hilton--another take on the evils of exploiting pretty women by selling tickets to the public to gawk at them.

Entertaining as all get-out, Pageant could use a final coat of polish. The songs are jaunty but unremarkable. The talent bits need tightening. A tacky "production number" with Star Trekky overtones could be nudged closer to warp speed. And the return of the previous year's winner, coming at the end of Act 2, slows down the finale. The vote-tallying process, which depends on the quick math skills of emcee Miller, also gets a little dodgy.

Contests pitting pretty girls against one another for "fabulous prizes" make great fodder for satire. Some of the real ones, like the kiddie competitions chronicled in the creepy HBO documentary Living Dolls or the weekly wobblings of weepy stick figures on the runways of UPN's America's Next Top Model, parody themselves unintentionally. The new MTV reality show Tiara Girls is Pageant without the irony--and with scary moms pimping underage daughters for chump change at small-time teen beauty fests.

America used to put its pageant-winning beauties on pedestals. Not so much anymore. According to published reports, only 3 million viewers tuned in to this year's Miss America telecast on cable, down from more than 30 million two decades ago when it still felt like an "event" the whole family watched together. The whole notion of what we consider youthful beauty has shifted far away from the wholesome image of fresh-faced farmgirls fiddling their way to "Here she comes..." Now it's the immodest nip-slips of the tabloids' skanky cover-nymphs that get all the attention.

As exaggerated as it is, Pageant ends up being a rather sweet and nostalgic tribute to the days when small-town girls who majored in home ec could find some personal satisfaction and a little public glory in winning a satin sash and a rhinestone tiara as Miss Fire Ant or Miss Rural Electrification. This is what it's come to. The best representatives of traditional American womanhood turn out to be six dudes in dresses.


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