There will be blood. There will also be smoking, extensive profanity, and trace peanut allergens.
Signage at Park Square Theatre prepares visitors for a Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant with some adult elements, which has been expanded from a production at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
Keith Hovis—playwright, composer, and lyricist—has turned his Junior Talent Pageant into a full-length musical, now premiering at Park Square. There’s a lot to enjoy in the new production, although its more outrageous elements are sometimes at odds with a character-driven story fighting to emerge from the satire.
The show’s style and conceit evoke ’90s classics Waiting for Guffman and Drop Dead Gorgeous, the latter in particular given the rural Minnesota setting. Jefferson Township, we learn, was known for its annual kids’ talent competitions until 1997, when famous turned to infamous as a contestant was accidentally decapitated.
In the present day, four friends (or, perhaps, frenemies) who were there for the pageant’s last iteration have reunited. Frannie (Kelly Houlehan) has moved back home after her big-city job prospects dried up. Her former crush Travis (Zach Garcia) has a hot dad bod now, and she takes a job stocking shelves with his drinking buddy Liam (Ryan London Levin).
Meanwhile, the imperious Val (Leslie Vincent) is still trading on the local celebrity of being the last person crowned talent pageant champion. She bristles at an idea that starts as a joke between Frannie and Liam: What if the now-adult contestants restage the 1997 pageant, to finally see who would have won?
The show is a big lift for director Laura Leffler and the four-person cast (all returning from the Fringe production), who are asked to deliver a sprawling production in the close confines of the Boss Thrust Stage. Given the chamber scale, the actors can’t fall back on spectacle: They need to sustain the show’s increasingly dramatic swings between zany and heartfelt.
Hovis has written big, well-crafted ballads and rousing anthems for his plucky millennials, but the broadly comic, intentionally ridiculous elements repeatedly swamp any chance of us investing in the characters’ emotional arcs. The result is that Val and Liam, relatively unburdened by aspirations of self-actualization, steal the show from romantic leads Frannie and Travis.
Everything seems to make sense, though, when Vincent’s onstage. Fortunately, that’s often. She triumphs with a deadpan performance as a cad who knows what she is; when she and Levin share a manipulative makeout, it crackles with the kind of unapologetically amoral energy this Pageant, at its most entertaining, embraces.
Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
651-291-7005; through July 28