Pageant is a perfect two hours. As in, it lasts two hours on the dot. Less can be said about the rest of the show.
Six hopeful contestants gather to battle for the crown of ‘Miss Glamouresse’. They’ve won their own individual regional heats to become Miss Industrial Northeast, Miss Great Plains, Miss Bible Belt, Miss West Coast, Miss Deep South and Miss Texas. Now, only five rounds and a spokesperson test-shoot stand in their way of receiving the coveted title and a lucrative contract.
However, as the opening number makes painfully clear, these girls are “endowed” with a little something extra: a penis. The girls are all played, as originally conceived, by men. The show charts the ups and down, the unique talents and the varied swimsuit choices, of the six girls, before a panel of fake celebrity judges – comprised of audience members – vote to choose a winner.
If you don’t get on board with the gimmick, you’re in for a long evening. The musical doesn’t demand anything more than a juvenile understanding, engagement or sense of humour. Double entendre is one of the classier attempts at comedy, with the show expecting the very existence of men in dresses to be enough to elicit laughter. Despite some vague ‘millenialising’ of the book, the whole thing feels very 1991 – when it was first staged. It’s neither clever nor funny enough for 2017, remaining just rude and rudimentary.
It’s difficult to know where to place blame for the lazy, one-dimensional nature of the show.
Originally conceived by Robert Longbottom, best known as director of the original, Tony-nominated production of Side Show, it has obvious and self-serving lyrics by Bill Russell (Side Show) and Frank Kelly, and forgettable music by Alan Evans. The book (also by Russell and Kelly) is thus, by default, the best part of the original material.
Despite dubious content, the production is saved by consistent and credible talent. The cast work neatly as an ensemble, and there are some enjoyable dance numbers, both solo and group.
Veteran performer Miles Western returns to the piece as Frankie Cavilier, the evening’s host, having won an Olivier as Miss West Coast in the original London production. Western combines the creepiest parts of Gene Wilder, Bruce Forsyth and Kenneth from 30 Rock in an unnervingly convincing performance. Acid-peeled, bright-eyed and over-sexualised, Western’s Cavilier is a camp, ‘old time’ dancer who would raise questions as well as eyebrows at any modern network. In short: it takes real talent to be this awful.
Alex Anstey – bumbling and matronly – is a perfectly pitched Miss Great Plains, and Kevin Grogan is laugh-out-loud funny as Miss West Coast (even if his rebirth scene seems stolen straight from Mr. G). Nic Chiappetta is a commanding Miss Industrial Northeast and John McManus provides impressive vocals as Miss Bible Belt. Jonni Gatenby and Adam O’Shea look the best in drag (think a less awful Kelly Mantle and a butch Courtney Act respectively) and perform most naturally, however their characters are less identifiable and more alike, at least to a British audience.
Bookwriter and lyricist Russell directs, to no particular avail and with even less flair. It’s a paint-by-numbers job as we move through the formulaic structure of the piece. The audience is both underused – even as judges – and underserved. A particularly vocal audience member is sassed into submission: we are kindly reminded that this is a theatrical production. It’s no mean feat for a show of this kind and calibre to take itself so seriously.
The set is believably tacky however it’s the room dividers on either side, creating an impromptu backstage at the London Irish Centre, that really smack of desperation. It looks like going through ‘Something To Declare’ at Customs, and is just as private, with the audible mass re-application of deodorant (or perhaps hairspray…) whenever the girls are offstage. No costumes wow but they are all serviceable and suit the shape and style of each girl. A strange reverb and poor quality recordings plague the sound design, although the live band are enjoyable.
Pageant is utter trash but fun if you know – and enjoy – exactly what you’re in for. It’s cheesy, vulgar and cheap – but you knew that from the marketing material. It’ll be a good night out for many, just don’t expect discussion of the concept’s potential inherent misogyny and homophobia at the bar afterwards. It’s not that crowd.