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Tucson Weekly Catwalk Caterwaul

"Pageant" pokes poignant fun at one of America's most absurd traditions.

By Margaret Regan

JUNE 8, 1998:  THE DELICIOUS KITSCH of the all-American beauty pageant is brought to subversive life in Pageant, a musical spoof that closes out the season at Invisible Theatre.

This Pageant has it all--everything you've come to expect on your TV screen the weekend after Labor Day, when the mother of all pageants broadcasts live from Atlantic City. The play is structured like a real beauty contest, running without intermission. There's the sleazy emcee, Frankie Cavalier (Manny Ferris), a portly lech with a yen for the girls. There's the tinselly backdrop, the semi-striptease music, the ludicrous song-and-dance numbers, the hilarious question-and-answer sessions, the prurience masquerading as wholesomeness.

And of course, there are the simpering, big-haired contestants themselves. One earnestly describes her volunteer work for the beauty-impaired, another tells how she combines acting with cancer research. Miss Bible Belt bumps and grinds her way through odes to Jesus. The gals sparkle their sequins in the evening-gown segment, and stumble their way through the talent competition. They squeeze themselves into lime-green nylon for the swimsuit competition. (Why do they walk so funny? As if something were, well, missing? Hold that thought.) And like every beauty pageant real or imagined, the whole glitzy shebang is drenched in commercialism.

Miss Glamouresse is a contest with a cause, a display of female pulchritude in service to the Glamouresse bottom line. Its winner will be crowned spokesmodel for the company's cosmetics, and each contestant tries her hand at pitching the goods during frequent live commercial breaks.

Miss Glamouresse, in short, has everything staid old Miss America has, but this Pageant goes her one better. As the contestants hint in one of their big production numbers, they have "something extra." As a matter of fact, the girls, sexy Miss Bible Belt and klutzy Miss Great Plains, airhead Miss West Coast and salsified Miss Industrial Northeast, are not girls at all. They are boys in female finery.

And what boys they are. Miss Bible Belt, crowned winner by audience judges last Thursday (there's a different winner every night), is played by Randall S. Thompson, who knows from beauty contests, having been crowned Miss Gay Tucson 1998 in real life. Slinking around in glittery gown and a red shag wig, he's a "female illusionist" who makes a lovely woman. Thompson turns in a dead-on impersonation of that peculiarly American persona, the mascara-ed, teased-haired, breasts-exposed false Christian. Some of the deadliest humor in the show is in Miss Bible Belt's big song, "I'm Banking on Jesus," skewering television religion's penchant for pennies.

Most of the antics are just plain silly, and just plain fun. It would be a mistake to make too much of the show's politics, yet its gender-bending does a better job of satirizing the creaky institution of the beauty pageant than an all-female revue ever could. When we see men parading around in swimsuits and heels, their stuffed breasts riding high and out front, their faces luridly painted, their hair reaching fantastic heights, we realize once again not only how stupid beauty pageants are, but how stupid conventional ideas of female beauty are. One song, "Girl Power," tackles the bizarre phenomenon of beauty pageants in the feminist age, when these skin shows try to pass themselves off as "scholarship contests." Co-opting feminist language, the "girls" sing that they can do whatever they want--and what they want to do is look pretty for men. How liberated can you get?

Not all the contestants are as slick as the hard-as-nails Miss Bible Belt. Brian R. Jenson, a UA junior, is a hoot as the pageant's nice girl, Miss Great Plains, a crooked-tooth behemoth who croons out an "operatic recitation of her own composition," ominously titled "I Am the Land." (Jenson actually has a pretty good voice.) Familiar IT player Stuart Moulton, who also directed the show and did the choreography, is the loopy Miss West Coast, an EST grad whose talent number is a dance recapitulating all seven of her previous lives. Moulton also does a turn as the Old Queen, last year's departing Miss Glamouresse. Ajia Simone, Miss Industrial Northeast, spins across the stage on roller skates, while Miss Deep South, M. Eric Taylor (a former Miss Gay Tucson) conjures up the Old Confederacy in a sublimely bad puppet show.

And the venomous Miss Texas gives us a peek at what Miss America's TV cameras never dare show us. (Watch her pinch and trip the winner.) She's played by Paul Vitali, a former dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet and Feld Ballets/New York. Vitali tap-dances a gun-glorious tribute to America dressed in cowgirl spangles. It's a red-white-and-blue production number that explodes with faux patriotism and giddy sexism, all rolled up in good ol', all-American vulgarity. Just like, come to think of it, the whole darn Pageant.


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