In 'Pageant,' a pretty girl is like a parody

Once, beauty pageants were taken seriously. I can remember when the Miss America pageant was among the most-watched TV shows every year. It took place in Atlantic City - nobody had to say "New Jersey" - in a convention center big enough to hold a commercial airliner. Winners were front-page news, because they embodied the all-American virtues of corn-fed loveliness and a powerful work ethic.

Feminism and common sense rendered the great pageants nearly irrelevant by the 1970s, and the movie "Smile" dealt the coup de grace by the middle of that decade. So the musical "Pageant," first produced off-Broadway in 1991, would already have been dated if it were intended to mock or satirize pageant culture.

Luckily, it isn't. It's merely giddy, ridiculous fun in which the big joke - all the "female" Miss Glamouresse contestants are played by men in drag - never gets a run in its stocking.

Stuart Williams is the driving force behind the production at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte: He directed, choreographed, designed costumes and wigs, handled props and created some of the makeup.

He has compared this show to "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," where male actors were so immersed in roles that viewers accepted them as women.

Yet "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" were both about clueless male egotists who learned to explore their emotions while pretending to be female. Those characters were transformed internally as well as externally, which is why audiences found them lovable.

Here, the men are really supposed to be women. And composer Albert Evans and author/lyricists Bill Russell and Frank Kelly make no claims on our emotions. They want us to grin at American culture, which still often defines half its inhabitants by their looks, but they're not knocking the cosmetics or pageant industries hard. In fact, they enjoy the cheesiness of the latter.

How else to explain the cheerfully smarmy master of ceremonies (Billy Ensley), with his tirelessly upbeat manner and a toupee that would deflect a machete stroke?

How else to explain the "talents" of Miss Bible Belt (Ryan Deal) and Miss Deep South (Devin Nystrom)? The former belts "I'm Banking on Jesus;" the latter does a ventriloquism act with antebellum puppets.

It's possible to have sympathy for clueless Miss West Coast (Clay Smith) or the consonant-challenged Latina from the Industrial Northeast (Alex Aguilar), though smug Miss Texas (Matt Kenyon) and histrionic Miss Great Plains (Robbie Jaeger) seem too fanatic to warm up to. But when the Miss Glamouresse whose reign has just ended (Gray Rickard) barges in, blowsy and bulging out of her ugly dress, the show becomes a horror comedy.

The songs are pedestrian, the lyrics intentionally as banal as real pageant lyrics have been. Contestants humiliate themselves by hawking bizarre beauty products.

Yet as the interviews and evening gowns and swimsuits rolled by, the play did just what Williams wanted it to do. I started to accept these muddled, needy creatures as women, not men playing women at all. That alone was a feat worth seeing.

P.S. Drag was the order of the evening on opening night, whether onstage, in the audience or among the musicians. (Music director Ryan Stamey played keyboards in wig, mascara and pearls.) No one will look askance if you want to break out that feather boa.