Former Texas beauty queens reunite more than 30 years after each of them won the Miss USA Pageant to tell their stories to a live television audience. Champagne is readily available backstage.
What could possibly go wrong?
That’s the premise of a new play by David Gordon Gilbert, which just premiered at Oscar’s Palm Springs, and is being performed Thursdays and Fridays through March.
As the play opens, Miss USA 1977, Kim Tomes (Denise Strand), welcomes the other former winners to the stage, one by one. Laura Elena Martinez (Dana Adkins) is Miss USA 1985, Christie Fitchner (Kitty Murray) 1986, Michelle Royer (Yo Younger) 1987, Courtney Gibbs (Denise Carey) 1988, and Gretchen Polhemus (Christine Tringali Nunes) 1989.
Resplendent in gorgeous, glittery gowns, each woman takes her place onstage. They are asked to reveal what led them into the pageant circuit. As they tell their stories, their unique personalities begin to emerge.
Laura, who was born in Mexico and still has a trace of an accent, seems to have had the bumpiest road to obtaining that crown. Left with a persistent eye twitch after a childhood tragedy, she is initially deemed “too chubby” by pageant standards, and is forced to spend hours jumping rope to shed the extra pounds. Christie, the sex-bomb of the bunch, never quite got over being dumped by her football-star boyfriend when his father decided she was too much of a distraction.
Ever-practical Michelle has a string of failed relationships behind her. The matchups were all doomed to fail … since the men all happened to be gay. Sweet, ditsy Courtney was apparently traumatized by an early modeling job where she was photographed in ugly plaid coats with hoods. Perky, wise-cracking Gretchen was strongly impacted by a vision in which a creepy female ghost prophesied that she would someday wear a crown.
During commercial breaks of this live TV show, as the ladies drop the polite smiles and hit the champagne, the claws begin to come out. As the slightly older and wiser hostess of this TV show, Kim tries valiantly to keep the women on track and maintain some decorum.
This is truly an ensemble show, and each actress has some memorable moments.
Always gorgeous onstage, Kitty Murray (also the producer) is perfectly cast as Christie. The quintessential Texas beauty queen—with a flawless figure and not a hair out of place—she also nails the over-the-top, self-involved dramatic flair these women often exhibit.
Yo Younger, as always, demonstrates her strong acting chops as the level-headed Michelle. We sense that, for her, winning a pageant wasn’t so much about the glitz and glamour. It was about the sense of personal achievement—the thrill of going into battle and emerging victorious.
Though Denise Carey is tall, stately and buxom, she ably conveys Courtney’s dizziness and vulnerability. When it’s revealed that she’s the only one onstage who did not finish first in the swimsuit competition, we really feel for her.
Christine Tringali Nunes is a hoot as Gretchen. Petite and spunky, she’s always fun to watch onstage. Chugging champagne, Gretchen is clearly having a ball, and she always lets us in on the joke: “In pageants, drama is like Jell-O—there’s always room for more!”
Denise Strand is terrific as the beleaguered Kim, who’s just trying to keep the whole production on course. As time goes on, she becomes more and more frustrated and annoyed that these gals are not behaving as expected: “It’s obvious that common sense is not a flower that grows in your garden!”
If there is one standout in the cast, it’s Dana Adkins as Laura. Tall and imposing, she is skilled at physical comedy: Her facial expressions are hilarious, and her timing is impeccable. I cannot imagine anyone else in this role.
Director Judith Chapman, an award-winning actress herself (The Young and the Restless), does an excellent job here. The pace is brisk; the stage movements are just right; and there is nice interaction with the audience. She has molded these six actresses into a comfortable ensemble. Chapman also provides the offstage voice of the ghost of Ann Richards. (Full disclosure: I will be providing the voice for two performances later in the run.)
The simple black set—six chairs adorned with each woman’s pageant sash, and an upstage table laden with crowns and champagne bottles—is perfect. As one would expect in a play about beauty queens, the hair, makeup and the gowns, especially, are superb.
Aces is not a deep, life-changing theater experience, but it is light, funny and highly entertaining, a fun spoof of the pageant mentality.
As Hannah Brown says, “Being a pageant girl taught me to be poised, polished and to slap on a smile.” Aces will likely put a smile on your face as you drive home.
Aces will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday, through Friday, March 31, at Oscar’s Palm Springs, 125 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, No. 108. Dinner service begins at 5:30. Tickets are $45 to $65, and there is a $25 food and drink minimum; the running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, visit oscarspalmsprings.com.