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Beauty Queens (With a Sweet Little Secret)

Date: Aug 11, 2014
Though the Off-Broadway musical comedy Pageant could be described as a beauty contest with drag queens, you should banish all images of RuPaul's Drag Race from your mind. While it's true that the show's six sparkly contestants, all vying for the coveted title of Miss Glamouresse, are played by men in women's clothing, they're not outrageous, in-your-face characters. Instead, they're serving female realness.

According to director Matt Lenz, that was by design. "We had guys come into the audition, show us a male head shot and then a photo of their drag persona, Femme de la Fierce, or whatever it was, and that was decidedly not what we were going for in terms of tone," he says. "I was looking for really inspired comic actors who could get beyond the dress and actually play the stakes. Their enthusiasm is what makes it work. To the characters, this contest is as serious as a heart attack."

Lenz had been a fan of Pageant, written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, with music by Albert Evans, since catching it during its original Off-Broadway run in 1991. "I went because my good buddy David Drake was in it," he remembers. "Then for the next 20 years, whenever I saw a funny show I'd think, 'I haven't laughed that hard since I saw Pageant!'" So Lenz jumped at the chance to direct the first NYC revival.

The production started out as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at the Red Lacquer Club, housed in the same space as the (recently closed) drag restaurant Lucky Cheng's, and right next door to the Neil Simon Theater, where Lenz had worked as an associate director on Hairspray starring Harvey Fierstein in drag. So clearly there was some serious cross-dressing mojo happening on the block. "We announced four Monday nights in February and sold out almost right away," he says.

Now playing three nights a week at the Davenport Theatre, the show, though broadly comic, also has an appealing innocence. This is family-friendly drag with no outré moments and very few nudges or long-eyelash winks. When the contestants croon "We are natural-born females" in the opening number, they're achingly sincere. "We try to stay away from constantly commenting 'these are men in dresses'," says Lenz. "There's something traditional and sweetly naïve about Pageant---that was one of the big takeaways for me when I saw the original. [Save for a handful of contemporary references, the script remains unchanged.] We play it like this is truly the most exciting moment in these girls' lives."

And that excitement is genuine and contagious. At the climax of Pageant, no one in the theatre knows who will snag the crown---not even the performers---because host Frankie Cavalier (played by John Bolton) appoints random audience members as judges every night. They even get a pad with numbers to hold up so the totals can be tallied.

"We can never predict what will happen," says Lenz, who adds that it's one of his favorite bits in the show. "Each girl has won multiple times [except for one, who never makes it to the finals because she also plays last year's winner who's passing the tiara]. I love the way the audience gets involved and watches the votes. I wish everyone could vote. We have had a few ties, and we declare a winner by the loudest applause."

recently announced a three-week extension through September 21, so Lenz and his colleagues all feel like winners. "There seems to be really good word of mouth," he says. "The show has such a fond legacy. People who saw it 20 years ago are eager to see it again, and those who never saw it want to experience it for the first time. I love when people tell me they come out with their faces hurting from so much laughing."

Raven Snook
is TDF’s associate editor of online content

Photo by Jenny Anderson