PAGEANT OF THE MASTERS 2010 “Eat Drink and Be Merry” – The Irvine Bowl – Southern California (Laguna Beach) Stage Review

by Tony Frankel on August 13, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Have you ever been in the mood for something – a museum, play, concert or lecture – but you couldn’t decide which? Well, here is your chance to see all of these at once: Pageant of the Masters, produced by the Festival of the Arts of Laguna Beach, is positively one of the most sumptuous, creative, thrilling, inspiring, and satisfying evenings you will ever have in the theatre…well, amphitheatre. Even though this event includes aspects of all arts, it culminates in a theatrical experience more moving, more charming, and more surprising than most plays or musicals you will ever see.

For those who don’t know, the Pageant is a 77 year-old institution that has perfected the art of tableaux vivants (living pictures). The producers select a different theme each year when hundreds of volunteers, under the guidance of professional directors, are transformed into re-creations of classical and contemporary paintings, sculptures and other works of art (at one point on this particular night, nine volunteers froze as silver Figural Salts above the proscenium arch and I was mesmerized – thrilled, I tell you – at life-sized salt shakers!).

Tonight’s theme was Eat, Drink and Be Merry, celebrating masterpieces that capture the high spirits of good times and the buoyed spirits during bad times. When the 30-piece orchestra, under the muscular baton of conductor John Elg, begins to play, they sound so good that you may mistake them for a studio recording. Classic and contemporary themes are employed, but particular note must be given to composers, arrangers and orchestrators Bill Liston and Kim Schamberg.

It must sound like I just fell off the proverbial turnip truck, but when the lights came up on Dutch painter Jan Steen’s “Prince’s Day,” it seemed that we were being shown a painting before the living art was displayed. Wrong.

It goes like this: First, there is the Dutch set, painted with boggling accuracy; second, the volunteer actors are bewigged and themselves painted in the style of the artist on display (including shadows painted on the skin); third, the costumes (sometimes half of the costume is worn and the other half is painted on the set); add Richard Hill’s superb lighting inside a giant frame, and the 3-D real-life set melts into 2-D art – the effect is uncanny.

The lights don’t come up until everything is in place, but many people say that their favorite part of the night is when we get to witness a piece of art developing before our eyes. Indeed, when Bingham’s “The Jolly Flatboatmen” came into being, the audience of 2,600 collectively gasped. The moment is truly transcendental. (Remington’s bronze, “Coming Through the Rye,” got applause just from rotating on a turntable!)

Scriptwriter Dan Duling is responsible for the enormously entertaining, whimsical, and instructional script; from the fascinating history of Mardi Gras to the heartrending Depression and the WPA. You will swear that narrator Skip Conover is channeling the iconic Paul Frees and Thurl Ravenscroft.

Director Diane Challis Davy is also a costume and scenic designer; she not only has a keen eye and a sense of pure showmanship, but keeps the pace running like a Swiss Cuckoo Clock. No wonder this is her fifteenth season at the helm.

Certainly, dozens of examples from the evening could have been cited (believe me, this reviewer took copious notes), but the end result is this: you will be inspired by the invention and beauty that mankind is capable of producing; Pageant of the Masters leaves you with a bit of misty-eyed hope. That alone is worth the price of admission.

tonyfrankel @

scheduled to end August 31 at time of publication
for tickets, visit


Brooke Hovas September 2, 2010 at 7:07 pm

i was in it, and i wish my piece was up here…..

John Topping September 2, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Brooke – I put up all of the pictures that I was given. Sorry you were omitted!
– John Topping, editor and publisher

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