More than pretty

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Even in their heyday, when Miss America yielded up TV personalities like Bess Myerson and Phyllis George, beauty pageants were a guilty pleasure. The annual Atlantic City extravaganza drew fire from soft- and hard-porn circles for being too chaste and wholesome, and at the other end of the spectrum, more fire from feminists who saw the spectacle as objectifying and demeaning.

Both were right.

Organizers were always more sensitive to the criticism that the contest was all about beauty. “It’s about class, talent, and poise!” they pouted, stamping their pretty feet. Reinforcing that flimsy claim stretched the TV broadcast beyond the salacious swimsuit segment. First came the Busby Berkeley evening gown parade, then the mutant cavalcade of talent, and finally the tense climax, when all five finalists were asked a question that would surely come their way once their year-long reign as Queen of Femininity began. And how could the pageant be all about beauty if there was a Miss Congeniality crown awarded every year to the most affable loser?

When my teen hormones were having their way with me, I could somehow endure Bert Parks, the Congeniality mascot, and the pageant flummery and still maintain a steady stream of drool until the crowning moment of the pulchritude pageant, when the newly anointed queen walked up and down the runway while Parks sang her song. Reality television at its finest, though of course no match for the thrill-packed episodes of Wipeout we see today.

Truth is, America has not outgrown its fascination with beauty pageants, though we’ve grown more sophisticated and politically correct in the way we consume them. We’re aghast at the parents who push their preschoolers into pageantry with all the trimmings, makeup, and diva tantrums, but apparently we can’t stop watching.

Bill Russell and Frank Kelly must surely have shared my lifelong ambivalence toward Miss America and her sisterhood, because their script for Pageant is a frothy frolic that revels in all that it mocks, showering excesses that seduce us as we laugh. The absurd vanity of it all is doubly compounded: men play all of the contestants, and all of them are vying for the title of Miss Glamouresse, a monarchy whose main privilege is shilling various Glamouresse cosmetics products until the next pageant. Auditions for this sacramental duty add a new category to the competition, sprinkled across the evening like the Best Song nominees at the Academy Awards.

Stuart Williams, memorably coquettish as Miss Deep South in the 2004 Pageant at Off-Tryon Theatre Company, returns as producer/director of the current Theatre650 version at Actor’s Theatre, with an obvious affection for the material. Williams’ investment in the enterprise also includes his choreography, costume and wig design, plus a credit, along with Clay Smith and Shirli Stevenz, in the mighty makeup chores.

I suspect one other Williams talent was devoted to the cause, for the golden wig that Billy Ensley wears as pageant emcee Frankie Cavalier is no more dazzling – or startling – than his teeth, and Williams runs a dentistry practice in his offstage life. Even without the embellishments of wig and enamel, Ensley has never been nearly so smarmy. Sneaking gulps from a hip flask serves as his human side.

Crossdressing extends beyond the Glamouresse contestants into the band, where music director Ryan Stamey, at the keyboard, primps a wig that appears to have been appropriated from Drina Keen’s scalp. Doesn’t help the forgettable score by Albert Evans, but the inside reference to Charlotte’s busiest musical director is a hoot. Actually, Stamey is prettier than at least half of the contestants, but the wide variety of appeal and repulsion is part of the fun.

Beefiest of the bunch is Clay Smith as Miss West Coast, the perfect physiognomy for the ultra-pretentious “Seven Ages of Me” interpretive dance. Vulgarity is the special province Alex Aguilar, who gives Miss Industrial Northeast a Hispanic flavor, glides clumsily on skates for her talent bit, and is the very antithesis of graciousness when eliminated from the finals with the congeniality booby prize.

Robbie Jaeger makes an ample cornmeal out of Miss Great Plains’s earthy wholesomeness, particularly in her epic recitation of “I Am the Land.” Equally irritating is Ryan Deal as Miss Bible Belt, wielding a leaden set of bells to launch her “Bankin’ on Jesus” talent segment and speaking in tongues for her big finish.

Sporting flaming red hair and hawking edible lipstick lip snacks in her commercial spot, Matt Kenyon as Miss Texas is clearly our most arrogant contender, but her brash attempts at swaying the four judges fell flat on opening night. Four seats are set aside in the front row for audience members who snag the honor of serving as judges, and they gave the nod to the sexiest, Devin Nystrom as Miss Deep South. Beauty must have triumphed decisively over tastelessness, for Miss Deep’s talent spot, “A Salute to Dixie,” included bad puppets, bad ventriloquism, and some snatches of “Camptown Races.” Bad as this sounds, I think one of those judges asked Nystrom out on a date when he came out into the lobby after the show.

Only one holdover from the 2004 production appears, Gray Rikard as Tawny-Jo Johnson, the reigning Miss Glamouresse who resentfully passes her crown to the blushing new queen. Given the augmented luxuriousness of Chip Decker’s set, Rikard has good reason to be disgruntled in his frowzy cameo. Speaking of things that turn me off, let me commend Williams’ take on the inevitable sashes that giftwrap the aspiring queens. As these lovelies introduce themselves, the sashes with their printed titles emerge and fasten like seatbelts.

It only gets sillier after that.

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