It’s a minor mystery that Pageant, Cygnet Theatre’s current entry, runs only an hour-45 and is a one-acter to boot. The play’s blueprint comes from the standard beauty-contest format, which usually takes twice that time to run itself out. Plus it has its share of musical numbers, which ordinarily would clutter things further. Plus there’s a cast of six whole contestants, all of whom get a deliberate vetting from librettists-lyricists Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and composer Albert Evans.
Robert Longbottom, who conceived the play to begin with, somehow managed to build in the mechanics that yield such a thrifty piece yet give no quarter to the fun in the play’s unapologetic self-absorption. But you don’t want to hear about the architecture involved, any more than you’d be inclined to seek out a tube of the play’s fictional (and hilariously phallic) Lip Snacks at the drugstore the next day. You’re too swept up in this show’s thoroughly irreverent send-up of beauty, the competitors and the culture that fuels the outrageousness. Pageant is a hugely good time, anchored by one of San Diego’s finest comics (in a mildly shortsighted role) and defined by an unmistakable attention to the task at hand.
Beauty contests occupy the same sphere of Americana as old-time radio soap operas, Dwight Eisenhower and the pre-divisional World Series. Old guys (like me) used to howl at the abject seriousness all those things were taken with; younger folks (like you) are off on your own, texting and pinging your way through a digitized world as the older stuff benignly loses relevance. That translates to an all-inclusive population that deals with the pageant concept the only way it knows how – through sketch comedy that takes a well-meaning glee in its topic. What else can you do but doll up a bunch of giddy, baritone-voiced guys and let ’em loose as a cadre of female attention whores who’ll advertise anything under the sun if it means more face time?
Miss Deep South (David McBean) won the title of Miss Glamouresse 2014 the night I was there, but not before McBean totally broke the place up with his ventriloquist act in the talent portion. He’s flanked by bubble-brained Miss West Coast (Luke Harvey Jacobs), fair-weather Christian Miss Bible Belt (Ryan Fahey), sore loser Miss Texas (Charles Osborne), baffled Miss Industrial Northeast (Max Cadillac) and bedrock Miss Great Plains (Conor Tibbs), whose dramatic monologue begins with the line, “I am a handful of dirt.” Director/choreographer James Vasquez (who played Miss West Coast in local productions of 2002 and 2005) seizes each chance to exploit the girls’ differences in character – Miss Deep South’s reasons for being are a world apart from Miss Texas’, and Vasquez knows it.
The only weak-ish link rests with the part of emcee Frankie Cavalier, and it has nothing to do with actor Phil Johnson, among the area’s greatest situational comic talents. Johnson has Frankie’s brim-shaped grin, loud mouth and splay strut down to a science, but Russell and Kelly don’t really do a lot to smarm him up. Cavalier is potentially a greasy little swine, as self-involved in his own way as the girls are in theirs; his chances to interact accordingly aren’t necessarily always there.
But any sponsor that trots out its own acne spackle and offers a 24-hour beauty-crisis hotline is the right sponsor for this show. The tech effort joins in the fun with costumer Shirley Pierson’s cascading formals, Sean Fanning’s and Michelle Caron’s willowy set and lights and music director Don LeMaster’s string-heavy beds as irritating as they are funny. This Pageant gets what it deserves in the way of the highest possible camp, and the less than two hours that could have been four is time very well spent.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 19. Pageant runs through Aug. 31 at Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. $29-$54. 619-337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.