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at the Black Orchid

By Kim Wilson

Some plays are made to advance social awareness. Others are made to sell drinks. Enter Chicago’s latest cocktailfest: a cheeky parody of that grand runway tradition, the beauty pageant, the stuff of little girls’ dreams, feminist rage, and many a send-up. What makes these ladies so special? Hey, they’re not ladies! They’re men in pretty dresses. After successful runs off-Broadway and in London, this musical extravaganza has been brought to the Windy City–specifically the Black Orchid lounge–by producers Bob Balaban, Neil Kahanovitz, and Don Kucharzyk, along with fictional sponsor Glamouresse cosmetics. Their mission? To crown as “queen” the girl who most faithfully represents the Glamouresse image of inner and outer (mostly outer) beauty. Good thing it’s an open run; the tourists will love this.

Looking like a stocky Ken doll with his sprayed-stiff yellowy coif, lavender tux, and blinding white teeth, emcee Frankie Cavalier (Kurt Sage) serenades and ushers in the six Miss Glamouresse finalists, to be judged by a panel selected from the audience: Miss Deep South (Kevin Barthel), dressed like Scarlett with a voice like Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie; Miss Bible Belt (Sean Blake), a sassy little Baptist who believes that if the Lord provides for the lilies of the field, she shouldn’t have to worry about oily skin; Miss Industrial Northeast (Scott Alan Jones), a colorful Latina who dreams of “frrrrreedom for all peoples”; Miss Great Plains (Dustin M. Lewis), a down-home Iowa girl who’s happiest when she’s breeding livestock; Miss Texas (Stephen Stockley), a seasoned vet who works the emcee, judges, and audience as if she were born in a tiara; and Miss West Coast (Miles Western), an Est graduate and double Gemini who tie-dyes her clothes (and, we strongly suspect, inhales the colorant).

The format is pure Atlantic City. An attentive waitstaff delivers endless refills to audience members, seated at banquettes and cabaret tables. These surround a lighted runway leading to the stage, which is bare save for various backdrops (at least, I think that’s all there is to it–it was hard to tell from my seat in the corner, behind the band and next to the saltshakers). Pastel visions in swimsuits and evening gowns, the girls strut and twirl through floaty production numbers set to tunes exalting their beauty and the miraculous power of Glamouresse cosmetics (including a futuristic number, “Gotta Be Venus,” with one too many jokes about Uranus).

Each girl is then given the chance to flaunt her unique graces in the talent competition, the high point of any beauty contest. What a range of inspired displays, from a dramatic reading entitled “I Am the Land” by Miss Great Plains, wearing stiletto heels and overalls, to Miss Bible Belt’s gloriously greedy gospel tune “I’m Banking on Jesus,” to Miss West Coast’s interpretive dance “The Seven Stages of Me,” which can only be described as–well, provocative. Between these artistic segments the contestants offer beauty crisis counseling (the Glamouresse equivalent of those Q&A sessions in which contestants talk about how they’d like to change the world) and take turns donning the Coral Robe of Many Ruffles to demonstrate Glamouresse products. I personally plan to rush out and buy some “Lipsnacks” edible lipstick in roast beef flavor because I too am a busy gal who can’t always take time to eat.

Cliches abound in this decadent spectacle, but then that’s the point. With so many absurdities and stereotypes connected to the beauty contest ritual, playwright-director Bill Russell could hardly stop at just a few. And though drag humor has been played pretty much to death (by the way, no offense, but these queens could stand some makeup tips from the girls at the Baton), the clever contestants keep the gags from stagnating with the catty, ditzy, and/or syrupy nuances they consistently pull out of their stuffed brassieres. Miss West Coast, deserving winner of the pageant’s Olivier Award, delivers facial expressions that are alone worth the price of admission. While the script (cowritten by Frank Kelly) is set, the performers still have ample room to interact with the audience and one another, especially when the judges select the winner. With this wild card built into the show, new sets of claws could come out every night.

Thankfully, Russell and cast keep their camp aboveboard. They neither succumb to easy, bawdy pranks nor do anything (beyond some flagrant displays of chest hair) to indicate that they’re in on the joke. Their unwavering sincerity throughout the heartfelt testimonials, boob-flexing “girl power” dance routines, and smiles through tears during the final crowning are what make this a genuine comedy rather than drag burlesque. That’s not to elevate this silly musical to any sort of high-art status. Don’t look for anything remotely resembling commentary, political stands, or fuel for debate. Put it this way: if Harold Pinter is a dry martini, Pageant is a foofy confection with three kinds of rum and a paper umbrella. Still, on the right night, it just might hit the spot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.