How often is beauty accompanied by its uglier handmaidens, privilege and prejudice? In the 1600s, the indolent, obese nudes in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens mirrored the influential few that could afford copious leisure and abundant food. Despite corrective efforts by more than a generation of arts activists, most of the faces that gaze out from the walls and pedestals of art museums remain conspicuously light-skinned and Northern European.
The same dynamics underpin the fundamentally degraded American institution of the beauty contest. As it happens, Theatre in the Park's production of the musical comedy PAGEANT arrives a little more than a month before the crowning of the 77th Miss North Carolina in Raleigh. Following tradition, her "lifestyle and fitness" will be judged according to how she looks in a swimsuit, while her "presence and poise" will be assessed through how well she wears an evening gown.
In the judges' tallies, those two combined will be valued exactly as much as her artistic talent, while her "community achievement" and "knowledge and understanding" will be valued less.
With targets as large as these, it is not surprising that playwrights Bill Russell and Frank Kelly repeatedly hit their marks in this broad 1991 off-Broadway musical, and director Ira David Wood IV indulges in caricaturing the denizens of this lime-lit vision of hell.
Frankie Cavalier (Mike Raab) is the seedy, leering and permanently unimpressed master of ceremonies who's already a drink or two in the bag by show time. Since half of the six contestants come from below the Mason-Dixon (including Brett Wilson's portrait of rectitude, Miss Bible Belt, and Jesse Gephart's titanic Miss Texas), the South gets a lot of the brickbats here.
So does drag, since all of the candidates for Miss Glamouresse are male—a point that's underlined none too subtly in composer Albert Evans' opening number, "Natural Born Females," and a subsequent tribute whose title reminds us that these girls all have a little "Something Extra."
The easy targets also include—believe it or not—a vapid blonde new-ager from the West Coast (Chris Maxwell) and an over-the-top dramatic performance artist (a diverting Justin Tyler Ryals as Miss Great Plains). Jon Skinner is stuck with the Hispanic stereotype of Miss Industrial Northeast, the only contestant with no formal education. (Yes, they go there.)
Maxwell and Ryals evince strong physical comedy in their contestants' talent selections and in addled product placement ads for the show's sponsor. Shawn Stewart-Larson's costumes range from tasteful to wickedly witty. Elsewhere in this intermission-less hour and 45 minutes, the pacing crawls, especially during extended dance routines like "Project Venus."
But when Pageant laughs at its characters instead of with them, it seems to reinforce rather than question the prejudices and privilege of well-heeled audiences. Beauty truly is a funny thing. Here, though, we're left wondering if it's always such a laughing matter.