Meet “Pinky Corningfield”: An ordinary Texas housewife who…OK, so she’s not so ordinary, because “Pinky” is a woman with a mission; one that involves her daughter “Chevrolet” winning the “Supreme Queen” crown in the most prestigious child Beauty Pageant in the entire Lone Star State! (“Bi-Cuz it Mehks Mi Heppih!” our gal tersely submits as the reason why having “Chevy” win is such a Holy endeavor for her.) So single-minded is she when it comes to her win—uh,…her daughter winning, that when “Marge”, a new arrival to the whole “child pageant” circuit shows up with her daughter, “Puddle”, and starts grabbing all the glory (–and maybe even a shred or two for her little moppet while she’s at it,) the obsessed “Pinky” will stop at NOTHING to claim that cubic-zirconia tiara for her (daughter’s) own, even if it means ‘eliminating’ the competition—consequences be Damned! It’s all part of Playwrights’ Mark Setlock and Matthew Wilkas’ madcap comedy, “Born To Win” which is having its Los Angeles premiere at Hollywood’s “Celebration Theatre @ the Lex” as part of their prodigious 37th Season!
Sort of akin to what you’d get were “Honey Boo-Boo” to become a live stage-show (only the absurd humor here is genuinely intended–) this raucous reworking of the writer’s earlier “Pageant Play” (which received its official unveiling at the Berkshire Theater Festival in 2008,) “Born To Win” shines its trenchant spot-light on a child beauty pageant (or several of them actually,) in Texas and assorted other Southern States. The truly hysterical script combines the best (and frequently most outlandish) subject matter from the likes of cult-cinema legend John Waters, ‘out and proud’ Dramatist Del Shores, and a few “Bad Mother” films like “Mommy Dearest”, “Throw Momma From The Train” and “Precious”, along with such vintage ‘Redneck’/’Hillbilly’ fare like “Hee-Haw”, “The Dukes Of Hazzard”, “Mamma’s Family” or “The Real McCoys” (–all rolled into one!) As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that if the phenomenon of “Midnight Movies” (which, in their hey-day of the 1970’s and ‘80’s, reveled in such ‘off-beat’, ‘obsessive’ or ‘over-the-top’ elements of Americana and Pop-culture,) were to be translated to the small stage, this is what they’d come up with! The direction by Michael Matthews, makes inspired use of his intimate space incorporating more than a few entrances and exits through the sides of the auditorium, and he even signifies a full change of location (onto Pinky’s front porch,) with a simple change of lighting (to “Pink” of course!) He’s also breathed clever new life into a couple of old “Vaudevillian” constructs like the “Joke Wall” (think the old “Laugh-In” show in which performers pop their heads in and out of the action to toss out a few quick, but always witty, ‘bot mas’;) or the standard ‘theatrical chase’, which has members of the company running on and off stage in hot pursuit of one another but always “just” missing them (reminiscent of the most guffaw-worthy musical sequences from TV icons like “Scooby-Doo” or “The Monkees”!)
One of the more innovative running ‘gags” the show can boast is the way “Puddle” and “Chevrolet” are merely represented by fancy dresses, with the adults playing to the clothes with no “real” flesh-and-blood child in them. Both virulently funny and bitingly tragic simultaneously, this in itself says a lot about both the state and status of these often ostentatious “Kiddie Spectacles” (–not to mention the parents who compete…or rather ‘have their children’ compete‘—in them.) For all the out-and-out craziness though, Matthews also affords the quieter moments their collective due as well. These include a handful of those found in “Pinky’s” ‘flashbacks’–hysterical on the face of them, but upon a closer appraisal, these too act as a window into her ‘less than perfect’ past; in addition to a number of touching, introspective speeches “Marge” delivers which themselves provide insight with respect to who she is and just ‘how’ she got to where she is. Likewise, Choreographer Janet Rosten has concocted one or two lively dance routines (—complete with “Jazz Hands”) that are performed by the adults who ‘demonstrate’ them with precision (while supposedly teaching them to the ‘girls’ to watch and learn.) Not to be overlooked either is the uproarious contribution made by “Fight Choreographer” Sondra Mayer, who here has staged a brilliant “Cat-Fight” between the two Mothers at the play’s climax once “Marge” aided by “Bob” has discovered “Pinky’s” aim to dominate these pint-sized spectacles and all ‘Hell’ has broken loose—taking “Sanity” with it besides! What’s more, all the zany hijinks are played sans Intermission (because you won’t want them to stop!)
When we initially happen upon “Pinky”, she’s a well-heeled pageant-mom (–the wife of “Gunnar Corningfield” –the top “Toothpick Salesman” in the area) a genial (at least superficially) ‘Veteran’ of the ‘Pageant Wars” who is out to fulfill her own frustrated “Beauty-as-Sport” dreams through her daughter, “Chevrolet” (“Because it’s French”, she proclaims early on regarding why the tyke was so named.) After one such event, she encounters “Marge Jackson”, a total novice on the circuit, who (as we soon learn) only wants to win enough money to bail her abusive Hay-Seed Lout of a husband out of jail. Her ‘daughter” “Puddle Jackson” (or “Pud” for short,) was supposedly born at the height of “Tropical Storm Cynthia”, after which her new ‘mother’ looked out and saw all the standing water the massive rain-showers left and felt the name was especially fitting. “These Pageant Moms can be such Bitches!” Pinky warns Marge as the pair get to know each other when their little meal-tickets are competing against each other for “Little Miss Gingerbread”. “Don’t worry,” she assures her new instant gal-pal, “Pinky’s gonna show you how it works!” “It’s tue mech” an overwhelmed Marge replies, but grateful for any help she and her Pre-school aged “Newbie” can come by.
Enter “Bobby” and “Bob”, the proprietors of “Touch The Sky Pageant Coaching”, two…let’s just say ‘festive’ “coaches”, who intrinsically become ‘pawns’ of “Pinky’s” demented plan for “Pageant World Domination” once her little “Chevy” starts losing time and again to “Puddle”. As Partners in this enterprise, “Bob” does the kid’s hair, while “Bobby’ does everything else. The two have even developed a ‘system’ for competing which, as they explain in the opening lecture of their symposium, “revolves around a simple acronym: S.H.E.I.T. This stands for Smile, Hair, Eyes, Illusion and Tenacity. Trouble is (for “Bob” anyway) is that he admittedly doesn’t know a thing about doing hair! After ‘stealing’ “Miss Gingerbread”, “Puddle” easily nabs the title of “Little Miss Alabama Haystack”—then it’s on to the most coveted title of them all: “Little Miss Supreme Queen” (–something “Pinky” is bound and determined to NOT let happen—even if it means kidnapping her offspring’s closest competitor, rationalizing her actions by stating she “doesn’t want her to grow up to be a ‘dumpster fire’—like her mother!”) In time, we even learn “Pinky” paid the guys (well, leastways “Bobby”,) to ensure that “Puddle” doesn’t win the “Little Miss Texas Twinkle Pageant” –even going so far as threatening to ‘sentence’ them to “Conversion Therapy” if they fail. Naturally though, “Puddle” wins (meaning “Chevy” doesn’t—again) which seriously starts to send our “Miss Pinky” over the edge: “That four-year old little HOOKER!” she seethes when its “Puddle’s” name that’s announced as the new title holder. Even worse, when it looks like “Chevrolet” is going to lose that “Supremely” vied for contest (and probably to “Puddle”—once more,) “Pinky’s” disturbed mental outlook sends her into various expositionary “flashbacks” that account for her compulsive motivations. Both humorous, bizarre, and deeply poignant at the same time, through them we find out that “Pinky” was herself a less-than-successful Pageant competitor—something that her own “Mommy Dearest” never let her live down, even going as far as to emotionally manipulate the girl into getting some breast-implants because, she’s told, her pre-adolescent ‘endowment’ wasn’t impressive enough!
Expect to see some incredible ensemble work that features a quartet of actors—each rocking the best (and trashiest) Southern Accents that are so ‘ripe’ you could cut through each one with a Texas chainsaw! They also look like they’re all having an awesome time up on the “Celebration’s” stage, so we in the audience have even more fun watching them! Essentially, they also bestow on us twice the delight–because just about all of the performers double at some time throughout the on-stage goings-on. Leading them all is Julanne Chidi Hill as the boisterous, big-haired “Queen Bee” of the Texas Tot-Tourney Circuit, “Pinky”. The central figure who ignites just about all of the action here, she’s conspicuously charming (when she wants to be,) with a billowy bouffant, a broad smile, and an even bigger (–make that ‘manic’) personality. Yet Hill’s overall ‘slant’ on “Pinky”, while consistently stellar, is frequently nuanced too; Yes, her temperament is large and always in charge, but here and there, she grants us savory glimpses of some equally voluble vulnerability—particularly by way of her “Memory” sequences. Meanwhile, as “Marge”, Daiva Deupree has several monologues—each one more amazing than the last. A few even contain ‘confessions’ that just may drop your jaw! Indeed, one of Deupree’s very best moments occurs when rendering her preliminary soliloquy, as “Marge” and “Puddle” (again represented by an empty dress) sit outside of their RV and gaze up at the night skies dreaming of Maine (which Marge had heard somewhere, is like “Vacationland”;) or how once there, mother and ‘daughter” can have more time to play together: “We can play princesses too–I love princesses!” she tells the chronically uncommunicative youngster, all the while wondering why “Puddle” doesn’t really speak much: “Take your time, Pud,” Marge assures her pensively, “You’ll come around…I know you will.” Moreover, Deupree’s turn as “Pinky’s” boozy, calculating Mother in a portion of those flashbacks thoroughly enlightens us as why our rambunctious Heroine is the way she is.
As both “Bobby”, the flamboyant “Pageant Coach” and “Buddy”–“Marge’s” Shit-Kicker Jail-Bird husband, who spends most of the action cooling his heels in the County Lockdown, Drew Droege furnishes a duo of bracing and perceptive characterizations. “We Ore Ortists!” “Bobby” summarily informs “Marge” (shortly before he also refers to her little “Pud” as an Alien.) Just wait until he has a ‘cosmic vision’ of how “Puddle’s” coiffure should be though—completely shaved (this is sincerely worth the cost of a ticket alone!) Then, in his guise as “Buddy”, he presents a completely different, human “bull-dozer” of a persona–one whose primary interest in “Marge’s” latest activities pretty much start and finish with how quickly she can make bail for him (–and why she isn’t doing it faster!) In fact, it’s also a humongous testament to Droege’s masterful, chameleon-like acting ability that he’s categorically sooo different in these two characters he’s been tasked with, that it’s almost unbelievable that they’re played by the same person! (Not only that, he also has the mind-blowing facility to change—literally in the blink of an eye as he is called on to do in numerous places here.) For his part(s), saddled with a bad wig himself, Matthew Wilkas comparably excels supplying TWO multifaceted portrayals! First, he’s “Bobby’s” ‘Associate’ “Bob”, the Assistant Pageant Coach who, in due course, comes to trust in his own talents (which forlornly, we learn, still don’t include doing children’s hair!) Just as riveting is his approach to “Gunner”, “Pinky’s” supportive-to-a-fault Husband and little “Chevy’s” father. Like his Co-Star Drew, Wilkas’ interpretation of this alternate role is completely at the other end of the spectrum personality-wise. To top it off, “Gunnar’s” very reticence to be more invested in his daughter’s activities–nor to keep his wife’s ‘over-involvement’ with them in check, also makes a vigorous statement about such ‘shadow parents’ (those who don’t–or won’t–intervene when such things inevitably get out of hand.)
Stephen Gifford’s vivacious scenic designs pack a whole lot of ‘fantastic’ into the “Celebration Theater’s” relatively compact space, focusing mainly around the upstage wall decorated by shelves and shelves of Styrofoam wig-heads, which (upon the audience’s entry) is bathed in a smooth crimson light. There’s even a mini-chandelier–and the faux-silk front scrim is adorned with an assortment of pricey little girl’s dresses. Matthew Brian Denman’s lighting designs also go a long way in helping to conjure this semblance of “expansiveness”, with much of his illumination adding immensely to the ‘feeling’ that, (no matter how modest or homespun,) we too are a part of something as ‘momentous’ (even if only to those we’re becoming familiar with,) as a small-town kid’s “Pageant”. Furthermore, “Pinky’s” big “recollection” scenes are also introduced amid a flurry of terrific light (–and ‘lightning’) effects gratis Denman, and when “Bob” finally has his big “A HA!” moment of realization, he’s bathed in stunning red light to match his anger. For the curtain call, the rear ‘shelves’ that comprise the back wall even light up in differing hues in ascending order (à la a vibrantly glowing “Rainbow” flag!) The costumes, by Allison Dillard are also about as wonderful and wacky as they come. True, everything is a tad on the gaudy side, but in all the sharpest and most thrilling ways! Pinky’s pink frilly blouse (with frilly ‘roses’ on each sleeve) over a red lamé skirt and matching head scarf—is accessorized with loads of the brightest, kitschiest costume jewelry this side of “Dollywood”! Marge on the other hand, is dressed like she just jumped out of a Ford Ram Truck commercial (–one that would be aired during a Sunday afternoon Demolition Derby on some off-channel!) Her attire consists largely of a faded blue denim-jacket and nifty leopard print leggings (for that matter, ‘Leopard Print” makes its presence recurrently known in much of the costuming we see!) As “Gunnar”, Wilkas dons the classiest brown Stetson in the whole trailer park, embellished with a garish turquoise Neckerchief, while (conversely,) the most colorful thing the under-confident (at the outset, in any event) “Bob” is allocated is a lime-green bow tie–this being his idea of ‘dressing up’ for the seminar he and “Bobby” regularly host. Droege too, has his moments of sartorial significance such as the orange knit-skull cap and matching Prison-issue jumper, “Buddy” is bedecked in for most of his time treading the boards here. Worthy of note too, is “Dialect Coach” Tuffet Schmelzle’s work in creating those so-on-the-money, tawdry ‘Texan’ dialects all the cast utilizes (these aren’t just run-of-the-mill ‘drawls’ mind you—they’re ‘States of Mind’!)
“WE WERE BORN TO WIN!” “Bobby” and “Bob” ultimately remind us–and it’s great advice: seeing “Born To Win” you too will be “Dancin’ on Diamonds”! After previewing on Wednesday, February 13th and Thursday, February 14th, “Born To Win” opened on Friday, February 15th, at “The Celebration Theatre @ the Lex”, located at 6760 Lexington Ave. in Los Angeles, California, where it is slated to play through Sunday, March 31st, 2019. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Please Note: There will also be a “Gala Fundraiser” performance on Saturday, June 2nd, 2019, with a limited amount of tickets available, which will also include a cocktail reception with the Cast. Tickets for all performances may be obtained by calling (323) 957-1884, or by logging onto: www.celebrationtheatre.com to purchase tickets online or for additional details–including a complete schedule.
Production Stills By Matthew Brian Denman, Courtesy of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And “The Celebration Theatre At The Lex”; Special Thanks To Michael Matthews, Michael A. Shepperd, Mark Setlock, Matthew Wilkas, Janet Rosten, Sondra Mayer, David Elzer And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Celebration Theatre’s” 2019 Los Angeles Premiere Of “Born To Win” For Making This Story Possible.