Tales of Tiara

Pageant is not a drag show. Although its leads are all women played by men in wigs and dresses, this kitschy comedy isn't aimed at gay audiences or fans of cross-dressing. Pageant plays it straight, its premise closer to the real-life beauty contests it spoofs than the drag fest it's often mistaken for. The six gals vying for the title of Miss Glamouresse are "real" women who happen to be portrayed by men.

There are no gags about guys in dresses, no references to Uncle Milty--just a half-dozen beauty-impaired contestants competing for a big paste-jewel-and-paperboard crown.

It's a gimmick that sells: The original production that played forever off-Broadway did boffo box office for In Mixed Company last summer. The troupe has hauled the show back onto an off-season Herberger stage, where it's selling so well that its run has already been extended. Audiences return again and again to watch these big-boned beauties compete in Evening Gown, Talent and Swimsuit categories, and to help select one titanic transvestite (audience members act as judges) to crown "Miss Glamouresse."

It's senseless to criticize the artistry of a show that calls on rubber boobs for its humor or one that provides this many laughs. But Pageant is still a bit of a drag--mostly because it lampoons an institution that's already pretty laughable. In these post-PC times, beauty pageants are either camp or contemptible, and spoofing one is a risky proposition. Pageant scores high when it goofs on the bizarre onstage antics of beauty queens, but misses its chance to make a statement about the mean-spirited misogyny of its main event.

Pageant's main flaw is that it's a one-joke show, and the joke wears thin after about an hour. A man in a dress is funny for a little while after his first entrance, but once we're accustomed to a stageful of towering beauties, this program is left to play off the same riff.

Ben Brittain is perfect as the oily emcee, but his character is such a one-note that we're sick of his Wayne Newtonesque patter after a couple of jokes. At two hours with no intermission, Pageant is just plain too long.

Still, the show does provide some genuine fun. The biggest yuks come from the talent competition, where contestants carry out the standard amateur-hour antics: an interpretive dance; a gaudy tap routine; a ventriloquist act. The goings-on get progressively sillier (the high point is a roller-skating, aria-singing Carmen), though I was more amused by the prominent bumps displayed in the swimsuit competition than anything that transpired during the talent portion of the evening. Perhaps costume designer Tiia Torchia should tighten whatever belts or pins are holding these ladies in place.

The best part of the show takes place backstage, where the men become curvaceous pageant contestants, cramming their feet into tremendous pumps and taping on prosthetic hips. While they cinch themselves into various foundation garments ("This one has my boobs in it," actor Scott Withers explains, brandishing a scary-looking, lacy contraption) and pile on enough eyeliner for a dozen Selena impersonators, these guys talk about things that real beauty queens probably discuss: where to buy the best eyelashes; who has the biggest hair dryer; why Madonna's new CD sucks. A baritone calls out, "Has anyone seen my petticoat?", and everyone laughs, but the laughter stops abruptly when I ask which "girl" tends to win the competition most often.

One of the men, whose formerly bushy eyebrows have vanished and who's busily forcing a length of foam rubber into his pantyhose, points to another man wearing jeans and jackboots. "Her," he says, practically spitting.

"Not that anyone's counting."
The cast is equally girlish onstage. Expertly bewigged and fussily painted by makeup artist David Anaya, they maintain director Jim Linde's breakneck pacing, singing, dancing and performing product endorsements for the program's fictional sponsor. Unfortunately, the audience tends to respond to the performers based mostly on how good they look as women. R. Scott Harnisch, a handsome hoofer in real life, is hysterical as Miss Great Plains. But Harnisch makes such an unattractive woman that the judges' response to his corn-fed sweetie is usually pretty dismal. (On opening night, judges awarded Harnisch 29 points out of a possible 60.) Most nights, it's a race to the finish between Miss Bible Belt (David Jones) or Miss Deep South (Jeffrie Allen), both of whom look more like women than their contemporaries.

Despite all this fantastic female illusion--or perhaps because of it--Pageant hasn't led to more work for most of its cast, although one player was offered the role of the witch in a local production of Hansel and Gretel.

No matter how horsy, these counterfeit chorines are ably assisted in snagging that cardboard crown. Lyman Goodrich's choreography is just right; his production numbers are simply staged and simply ludicrous, just like the real thing. Jerry Wayne Harkey's three-piece band sounds like a full orchestra, and AJ Epstein's glitzy lighting design is entirely pageant-worthy. Even the show's tedium is true to form, though there must be some way to trim a half-hour from this show (I'd start by axing the emcee's song and a long, terrible musical finale called "Girl Power").

Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Pageant is its subtext--men portraying women competing in a patriarchal, sexist, looks-based contest that devalues females--but on the surface, there's little commentary on misogyny or the objectification of women. Pageant is a real beauty pageant full of unreal and not particularly beautiful contestants that wears out its welcome about halfway through. But I defy you to look away.

Pageant continues through Sunday, August 9, at the Herberger Theater, 222 East Monroe. For more information, see the Stages listing.

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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