Pageant is a sweet treat for its laughs and glitter, but in the days of RuPaul, drag needs substance as well as style.
Pageant draws on two stalwarts of classic British popular entertainment: pantomime drag, and mocking Americans. Fans of these conventions will find much to enjoy in this production. The original musical was first performed off-Broadway from 1991-2, and this production has the distinction of being directed by the writer of the book and lyrics, Bill Russell. It is premised around a beauty pageant featuring six lovely ladies from across the good old U S of A, who all happen to possess, in the words of one of the songs, “something extra”. The girls compete across various categories, including talent, evening gown, and swimwear – at which the MC (Miles Western) commends the efforts of the head of wardrobe “Mr Dick Tucker”. In an interesting twist, members of the audience eventually vote on which beauty will win the crown, a welcome subversion of the elitism that pageants impose on their contestants, and that the beauty industry dictates to women.
Yet, Pageant is ultimately a celebration of drag, and while it plays upon imaginings of pageant culture, the beauty industry, and gender roles, this is not to offer a biting critique. Indeed, the concept of the pageant, of the characters competing for something that matters to them, is lost almost as soon as it is introduced. We never understand what might motivate the girls to compete, what is at stake for them, all that struggle and conflict that has been explored in theatrical or cinematic representations of pageants elsewhere. The idea of the pageant serves instead to give the show its episodic structure with the emphasis on spectacle, showcasing the talents of the cast, with Tim Austin’s minimal pink and purple set and unobtrusive lighting allowing the girls to shine.
The physical comedy of Miss Great Plains (Alex Anstey) and Miss Industrial North East (Nic Chiappetta) stands out in particular. Miss Texas (Jonni Gatenby) and Miss Bible Belt (John McManus) offer highly accomplished dancing and singing performances respectively. The energy of Miss West Coast (Kevin Grogan) as she bounces around the stage, like, totally clueless but loving life, is joyful to watch. Pageant has uproariously funny moments, but almost every single line and gesture is played for absolutely maximum laughs, perhaps a choice suggested by the cabaret-style concept and the structure of the show in which, apart from a few big numbers, we tend to only be introduced to one performer at any one time. This allows little of contrast in tone and pace, and even less in terms of character development. For this reason, the standout performance for me was Miss Deep South (Adam O’Shea), whose modulated and restrained Southern Belle character at times visibly snapped under pressure, providing much-needed moments of stillness to highlight the outrageous extravagance that prevails for the rest of the production.
In the twenty-first century, thanks largely to the fabulous RuPaul, drag performance has permeated the mainstream, with vocabulary and even the makeup technique of contouring now becoming commonplace. These days, we like our drag queens savvy, fierce, and relevant as well as spectacular, where Pageant is all about frothy display. Forget the crown and bouquet; for me, what Pageant needs to be a winner is a little more substance with its style.