Gender Bent

A guy in a gown is usually good for a laugh, and the mere mention of a beauty pageant these days elicits at least a good, loud snicker. Thus Pageant -- The Musical, a drag show that's more than a drag show; a musical spoof that takes shots at beauty contests and provides a surprising number of laughs. Surprising to me, anyway, because for my money, the drag thing gets old pretty fast in most any context. But here, the jokes keep coming, the pacing is perfect, and even a couple of the songs are amusing.

Another surprise is the opulence of this production, which looks for all the world like a big-budget Equity show but is in fact the première program from HowGood Productions, a new, nonprofessional troupe that appears intent on rewriting the rule about small companies and no-budget shows. They've started by ripping out all the seats in the Herberger Theater Center's Stage West and replacing them with cocktail tables, perhaps to attract the gay bar crowd, who presumably will want to see a show in which men dress as women but won't turn out unless there are martinis involved. They've added a runway thrust and a mammoth curtain scrim with the show's logo, and assembled a first-rate three-piece combo (with harp!) to accompany a voluptuously talented crowd of none-too-lovelies.

The backdrop is the fictional Miss Glamouresse Pageant, in which six semifinalists compete for a paste-jeweled crown and a yearlong gig as the spokesmodel for phony Glamouresse Cosmetics. Exaggerated gestures are celebrated in talent, evening gown, swimsuit and physical fitness categories, after which judges select a different winner each night. In between, we watch each contestant pitch goofball cosmetic products -- edible lipstick, face spackle, feminine deodorant disguised as costume jewelry -- and listen to cheesy patter from oily emcee Frankie Cavalier (Jim Roehr), whose greatest contribution is his stature; the diminutive Mr. Roehr looks hilarious standing alongside the statuesque "girls," which of course is the whole point.

Most of the humor is hung on the notion that guys with rubber tits sporting sequins and furbelows is really hilarious, and in fact many of the bigger laughs go to the various ugly dresses hung on the cast: a mammoth pink chiffon evening gown, accessorized with a big, ugly plastic-peach corsage; a garish Dutch milk maid's costume; a breakaway Pilgrim frock that becomes an American flag bedecked with plastic daisies. Hair and makeup designer Manuela Needhammer, whom I stupidly mistook for a costume designer in a review last season, has created a parade of delightfully absurd wigs and unsubtle face paint that's perfect here.

Those homely hopefuls -- Miss Texas, Miss Bible Belt, Miss Deep South, Miss Great Plains, Miss West Coast and Miss Industrial Northeast -- made me believe they were competing for a velveteen sash, and made director Jim Linde's smart, breakneck pacing and Laurie Case's complicated choreography look easy. Standouts include Scott Withers' Miss Great Plains, who I'm told wins the Miss Glamouresse title most nights, and whose performance piece, "I Am the Land," is a hilarious burlesque of bad poetry, and Damon J. Bolling's Miss Industrial Northeast, who roller-skates while playing an accordion -- a feat that should win him some kind of prize come Theater Award night.

Withers indeed took the crown the night I saw the show, although my vote would have gone to Lyman Goodrich, who not only stepped into Miss Texas' size 13s at the last minute after a cast member defected, but who also co-produced the program and provided the evening's highest comic moment: Goodrich's response to being fourth runner-up -- a series of subtle, incredulous stares and sarcastic hand gestures during the show's finale -- was truly the funniest bit of an already witty evening. Robbed of his walk down the aisle, Goodrich can at least bask in the success of a superbly executed evening of theater, one you'd do well not to miss.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela