A musical send-up

Pageant | Vaudeville Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

How do you parody something regarded as a huge joke? Can you produce material more cheesey from a concept that already niffs fairly pungently in the fromage stakes? Writers Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and composer Albert Evans have managed it with their musical send-up of the American beauty competition biz.

How do you parody something regarded as a huge joke? Can you produce material more cheesey from a concept that already niffs fairly pungently in the fromage stakes? Writers Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and composer Albert Evans have managed it with their musical send-up of the American beauty competition biz.

Nightly, the Vaudeville is playing host to a full-blown pageant - a kitschfest of tears, tiaras and tantrums that would make Elton John look inhibited - taking six contestants through their kitten-heeled paces in swimwear, evening wear, talent, and beauty crisis counselling. The crises seem to be among the contestants though - one of the lovelies has a very hairy chest. Sorry, didn't I mention that these are all what Terence Stamp described succinctly in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as "cocks in frocks"?

They are, indeed, girls with "Something Extra", as one song tells us with tongue in powdered cheek. The line-up provides us with a rough geographical portrait of America, of sorts: Miss Deep South (majoring in home economics and cancer research); the shy Miss Great Plains (favourite colour: beige); a big and brassy Miss Texas, a party consultant who works with the beauty-impaired; Puerto Rican Miss Industrial North-East, who roller-skates and plays the accordion, but not quite at the same time; Miss West Coast, a blonde Californian, Karma by name, dumber by nature; and Miss Bible Belt, a toothsome wannabe televangelist - if a piranha favoured sequins, this would be she.

They're all vying to become Miss Glamouresse, a title put up by a dodgy cosmetics firm whose products - lipstick snacks, solar-powered rollers - the contestants are required to flog perkily (Miles Western's spot, as Miss West Coast, selling "deodorised apparel" and being overcome by the fumes is a hoot). Of course, this is never going to rival Michael Ritchie's 1975 film Smile as a dissection of the contest phenomenon, but as the gender-bending performers sing with rictus-like grins, "We're proud to live in a land that loves us", the fact that Republican George W Bush is ahead in the US Presidential polls gives the line a rueful irony.

The musical Eurovision (the song contest is another institution difficult to render funnier on stage than it already is) failed at this same theatre some years ago after transferring from a more cultish fringe venue. Stephen Waley-Cohen's well-drilled production, however, survives the leap to the West End from the King's Head, Islington, by virtue of stronger material and a deal of audience participation (a selected panel of judges chooses the winner).

It could do with a touch more bitchiness and less star-spangled sincerity, and while Lionel Blair's compere is obviously light on his feet, a more sleazy, oleaginous portrayal might have provided more of a contrast to all the campery. But how can you resist a show that, in a space-age number, raises one of life's great imponderables: what should I wear to a brand new planet - should it be flats or high heels?

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