Pageant -- the 1991 off-Broadway hit about a beauty contest, with the six contestants played by male actors in dresses and wigs -- was a clever, rowdy, dazzlingly funny and quirky musical. In revival 23 years later, Pageant is quirky and intermittently funny; the rest of the allure has gone the way of vanishing cream.
Mostly, Pageant back then was unexpected. And original, at least to mainstream audiences. Three years after Pageant came the international success of the Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, The Queen of the Desert, which humanized its somewhat similar characters, and compared to which Pageant is merely a sketchy spoof. In 2014, you've got Kinky Boots a few doors down from the tiny (and rickety) Davenport Theatre; you get more dazzle by simply walking past the houseboards at the Hirschfeld, on your way down the block, than you do at this revival.
Pageant recreates, before our very eyes, the 2014 Miss Glamouresse contest (and yes, the characters and content seem deeply rooted in 1990). Glamouresse is a manufacturer of dubious beauty products, like flavored lip-snack in oversized tubes that look like -- well, they don't exactly leave these things to the imagination. The evening is laid out simply: each "girl" is introduced, each offers her "talent," each does a raunchy Glamouresse commercial. There are also dress parades of gowns and bathing suits. If this sounds like the sort of thing dancers languishing on a long touring show might come up with in the wee hours to alleviate boredom, it is; Robert Longbottom, who conceived Pageant and served as director/choreographer of the original production, devised the thing while he was touring with 42nd Street and enlisted composer Albert Evans and lyricist/librettists Bill Russell and Frank Kelly to write it.
Longbottom's staging was perhaps the secret of the show's success. He was eventually given his shot at a big Broadway musical, the 1997 Side Show (written by the same Mr. Russell with Dreamgirls composer Henry Kreiger, and recently enjoying a successful revisal at the Kennedy Center). Pageant -- without Longbottom, directed by Matt Lenz and choreographed by Shea Sullivan -- is a pale affair. Whether this is due to Longbottom's absence, or the passing of time, or simply the dusty material itself, is impossible to say. But the bloom is off the beauty rose, if you will, and the show is mostly a faded also-ran.
What this Pageant does have is three canny performances which get us through the eighty-five minutes with intermittent spells of enjoyment. Mixed in with what might be considered obvious men-in-big-wigs performances are two very much nonobvious, droll performances. Nick Cearley (of The Skivvies) plays Miss Great Plains -- Bonnie Jean Cutlet -- with an air of bemusement that makes him stand out. His dramatic recitation, an ecological plea called "I Am the Land" which brings to mind that 1970s anti-pollution TV commercial featuring a crying Indian, pretty much wipes out the other contestants. (At the preview I attended, he was named Miss Glamouresse even though the votes of the audience member-judges favored one of the men-in-big-wigs.)
He is evenly matched by Seth Tucker, who gives a glazed and dazed performance as Miss West Coast. His special material is one of those "Seven Ages of Man" affairs, in which he emerges from the womb in a wild tie-dye outfit. Cearley and Tucker are performing material written by the same authors and staged by the same director as the other actors, yes; but their performances are on a considerably higher level.
Best of all is John Bolton as Frankie Cavalier, the fourth-rate master of ceremonies. Bolton--who recently emerged from a long career as a comic character man with the leading role in A Christmas Story -- has a lopsided smile, too many teeth, and a frozen enthusiasm; this might only be Miss Glamouresse, but he plays it like he is serenading Miss America. Yes, we've seen this sort of performance in this sort of role many times before, but Bolton seems to be convinced that he is the real thing--and he convinces us. (He is also the only person I've ever heard pronounce "cav-al-cay-ay-ay-ay-ayde" in seven syllables.) Bolton was rushed into the cast late in previews -- he started on a Sunday and played to the critics on Monday! -- but one can easily understand why the producers made the change. One can only imagine what this beauty Pageant would look like without Mr. Bolton.
Pageant, with music by Albert Evans and book & lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, opened July 14, 2014 at the Davenport Theatre