Easy Target

Beauty pageants, with all their silly hoopla of helmet-haired, endlessly grinning girls parading about in high heels and swimsuits, are an easy target for satire. Some might say too easy. The jokes are pretty obvious. There are the moronic speeches about patriotism and family, the hugely untalented talent routines, the backstabbing crown greed hiding behind those glittering paste-on smiles. And don't forget the emcee: He's bound to be some too-tanned, has-been Ken doll strutting about in a shiny rented tux. Indeed, the beauty pageant, with its dated, kitsched-out ethos about pretty, nice girls who grow up to be good citizens has practically become a satire of itself.

But that didn't stop Bill Russell, Frank Kelly and Albert Evans from coming up with their own take on this outlandish piece of Americana. Pageant, debuting at New Heights Theatre, offers a few new surprises about this strange entertainment, though most of the production, directed by Jim Phillips, follows a fairly predictable formula.

Lights come up on a pink stage strewn with gold and silver stars, a fittingly tacky backdrop for the final rounds of the oh-so-coveted title "Miss Glamouresse." Six ladies will strut their stuff for a group of judges (all audience members) as they vie for the title that will make the winner spokeswoman for Glamouresse products.

One oddity in this pageant is that all the women are actually men in drag. Not that this is a drag show -- not at all. The women simply are played by men dressed up like women. This seemingly meaningless conceit is an amusing sight gag, though I couldn't help wishing more could be made of it. Something about the objectification of women that goes on in pageants, etc. -- something, anything just a little political. What good is a satire if it doesn't take an intelligent, well-deserved whack at the thing it's satirizing?

This pageant is a sillier sort of satire with an agenda no bigger than to make the audience grin a lot at all the predictable goofiness happening on stage. An example is the introduction of the judges. Audience members stand, one by one, as the name on the card they've been handed is announced. One turns out to be a "poet laureate of Hallmark Greeting Cards," whose most famous ditty goes, "Love is a special kind of loveliness." And there's the famous spiritual thinker who wrote, "Hello, God. You Don't Know Me."

The introductions of the contestants are just as inane. Miss West Coast (Darren Polito) is an EST graduate. "In the future," we are told, "she intends to live in the past." Miss Texas (Randy Boatright), whose daddy is "richer than God," works with the "beauty impaired." These contestants, stereotypes as familiar as apple pie, are played with good-natured fun, if not a lot of imagination.

And there are many funny bits in the production that had the audience howling with laughter. The silly shows of "talent" are by far the best thing in this musical. Miss Great Plains (Matt Kelly), a big-boned blond with a heart as big as her hair, gives an "inspired" dramatic interpretation of "I Am the Land" that ought to end such contests forever. "I am the Land," she announces, her bottom lip quivering with pride in her heritage and disappointment at the way Americans have abused her.

Boatright's big-haired Miss Texas tap-dances with six-shooters and a baton. This flurry of sequined time-stepping mercifully ends with a wide, toothy grin and an even wider split. Miss Bible Belt (Craig Stephens) gets to the heart of modern mercenary evangelism with her rendition of "Bankin' on Jesus." And ever the solipsistic valley girl, who, like, can't think of anybody but herself, Miss West Coast rolls out on stage in a big green bag. She then dances to "The Seven Stages of Me." "I am born," "I fall in love," "I get hurt" are just a few of the levels of self-discovery she, umm, interprets.

As good as these four ladies are, they won't be outdone by Miss Industrial Northeast (Frank York), who skates out on stage, stomps down her skate-stop and whips out a dainty hand-held xylophone to plunk out a hesitant if hilarious version of "Classical Fantasia in c minor." Then there's that extra-special hand puppet salute to the Old South given by -- who else? -- Miss Deep South (Joel Quinones).

These wondrous displays of talent are accented with a beauty emergency call-in session, a bathing suit contest and a series of sponsor spots, where the contestants show off their ad-girl abilities with products such as "smooth as marble facial spackle"; "lip snack," the edible lipstick for the girl on the go; and "hair repair with air repair," the aerosol hair spray with an ozone replacement feature. Emcee Frankie Cavalier (Terry Jones) sports a ludicrous pompadour of jet-black hair and a terminal smile.

Enjoyable, predictably silly scenes of cotton candy fluff keep the 90-minute show moving along. Never mind that the music is utterly forgettable or that the characters are a bunch of warmed-over cliches; the audience gets to pick the winner, and they do a lot of laughing along the way. Besides, who would want to pass up the chance to see just how far hair designer Susan Romeo can go with a teasing comb and a can of spray?

Pageant runs through August 7 at New Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th, (713)869-8927. $18-$20.


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