In recent years, drag has gone mainstream on TV (RuPaul’s Drag Race) as well as Broadway (just about every other new show last season, from Hedwig and the Angry Inch to Casa Valentina). So the time is ripe for the piquant charms of the musical Pageant, now playing in a low-budget and breezy revival through Sept. 1 at Off Broadway’s Davenport Theatre. First produced in 1991, the new production includes a few modern updates with references to social media and Wendy Williams.
There’s very little story to speak of: Six athletic but very different women—all played by men—compete in a real-time beauty contest with a smattering of audience members choosing the victor (or, in this case, would it be victoria?). A gregarious master of ceremonies (A Christmas Story‘s John Bolton) corrals the beauty-queen hopefuls through talent demos, product hawking (a double-sided eco-hairspray is among the funniest), swimsuit reveals (which leave one to wonder, nearly aloud, where these guys tuck), and plain ol’ human pizzazz.
The character development is on the bikini-thin: The various contestant names (Miss Industrial Northwest, Miss Bible Belt, Miss Deep South, et al) is about all the shading you’re gonna get. But book writers Frank Kelly and Bill Russell refreshingly have no aspirations to high art, approaching the material with winking fervor (”you’ve got it all, plus something extra” goes one lyric). And just wait until you hear the name of the gals’ costume designer for the ultimate in a face-palming guffaw.
That said, director Matt Lenz’s production could use a girdle. Laugh lines are held a bit too long, leaving the performers to mug to fill space. As with many variety shows, some acts just don’t cut it. (However quaintly old-fashioned interpretive dance and ventriloquism are, they’re still not any more fun in 2014 than they were in 1991.) But the cha-cha-heeled cast make the evening worthwhile. Alex Ringler has an impressive high-kicking Western number (those gams!); Nick Cearley, of the underwear-clad novelty act The Skivvies, scores sympathy points as the endearing Miss Great Plains; and Curtis Wiley, who delivers a show-stopping gospel number as Miss Bible Belt. Extra credit for guessing who took top honors at my performance, which included pundit Michael Musto as one of the five judges. Hint: Can I get an amen? B