Beauty is only skin deep, especially for the six gender-bending contestants vying for the title of Miss Glamouresse in “Pageant,” currently playing at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.

The 1991 Off-Broadway show by writers Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and composer Albert Evans alternately celebrates and skewers the uniquely American tradition of beauty pageants as the “girls” compete in talent, swimsuit and spokesmodel categories.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience – and five judges selected somewhat haphazardly at random – are introduced to Miss Bible Belt (Christopher Calhoun), Miss Deep South (Michael Scott Ross), Miss Texas (Conor Walton), Miss Industrial Northeast (Kevin Veloz), Miss West Coast (Matthew Buffalo) and Miss Great Plains (Marcus Davis). Frankie Cavalier (Larry Buzzeo) is the emcee. 

The show’s gimmick is that all of the contestants are portrayed by men – years before RuPaul brought the art of drag into living rooms around the world thanks to “Drag Race.” And the audience is in on the joke as the sextet profess to be “Natural Born Females” and tout that “Something Extra” each brings to the competition. 

Unlike contemporary “RuPaul’s” queens who have elevated the art of female impersonation, the jokes are more akin to the campy portrayals of drag made famous by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot” or even Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in “Bosom Buddies.” We’ve come a long way since 1991, but that doesn’t matter. 

Director and choreographer Ron Hutchins is perfectly comfortable with the somewhat dated material, providing plenty of winks in the over-the-top production numbers and especially the individual talent competition and spokesmodel vignettes.  

Musically, the demands on the girls are minimal in most ensemble numbers, but music director Michael Ursua coaxes enthusiastic performances from all. The actors are backed up by pianist Cheryl Barth and drummer Taylor Shay Eischen. 

While an evenly strong cast, standouts include Ross, who, at 6’4” tall (without heels), towers above the others and delivers a hilarious act involving non-politically correct hand puppets. Buffalo, the reincarnated California flower child, slays in an autobiographical interpretative dance number (and later portrays the outgoing Miss Glamouresse). Walton steals the scene as the jilted second runner-up in this particular performance. And Buzzeo, a local stage veteran, effortlessly carries the heaviest musical load while connecting the various segments of the competition. 

Kudos go to the Island City design and stage team: Ardean Landhuis’ shiny and sparkly set, costumes by W. Emil White, hair and makeup by Bonnie DuBeck and the glittery props utilized during the spokesmodel segments, managed by Denise Proffitt and Michael Madigan.

Despite multiple costume changes and multiple props, the cast delivered a polished performance on opening weekend that almost certainly get better. The only awkward moment was when the five audience judges were asked to make their picks for the winner, but that should also improve over the month-long run. 

On this particular afternoon, Miss Great Plains was deemed the best, but make no mistakes, the audience is the clear winner at the Miss Glamouresse Pageant in Wilton Manors, no matter who wears the crown.

“Pageant” runs through Nov. 20 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $50 at IslandCityStage.org.


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