REVIEW: “Pageant of the Masters, Made in America” — Irvine Bowl

Updated: Jul 17

The Crowning Jewel of Laguna Beach


After a special VIP night last evening, the 2021 "Pageant of the Masters, Made in America: Trailblazing Artists and Their Stories," opens tonight, July 7th, and runs through September 3, 2021. Prepare yourselves for an exhilarating adventure as you watch this breathtaking, historical look at American artists and their impact on our lives through the form of creative vignettes, or tableaux vivants (living pictures). These incredibly faithful re­creations of classical and contemporary works of art with real bioluminescent people, posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces, are in fact stunning and incredible works of art themselves.

Even if you know technically what you are looking at — humans morphing into art — your brain will still have trouble rationalizing what you’re seeing. The illusion of the pageant is astonishingly good and strange as you watch these masterpieces come to life on stage — each appearance more astonishing than the last. You find yourself trapped between perceptual worlds; everything is simultaneously 2-D and 3-D. It is uncanny. Your eyes are confused, your brain feels squeezed. Rembrandt is non-Rembrandt.


It is so unique you can barely fathom how they can coordinate a production such as this. But, surprisingly, all of the Pageant’s works of art are played by a pool of about 500 volunteers. Most have been doing the same role for decades and take their job very seriously. Backstage, all the action is precisely choreographed. Roll a set in, load it with people, pose them, roll it to center stage, roll it out, unload. From the audience’s point of view, the paintings seemed to glide: The whole spectacle is serene and still, sacred magic, like a dream. But backstage, stagehands are running around giving directions, inspecting sets with flashlights, setting up the next illusion, all just a few feet from where the current illusion is happening. Downstairs, where cast members remove their makeup, hot-water pipes thrum and clank. While the audience is listening to anecdotes from a Will Rogers-like narrator, a stage director sits down right on the back of the set, watching for any discrepancies.


The stagehands roll over an industrial metal stepladder and lock it into place at the base of the frame and the actors climb up and in. They attach a metal clip on the back of their costumes to a metal clip on the set — a standard safety precaution. The stage director comes over to run through the poses one more time: they strike it and then relax. They make small talk with the stagehands, when suddenly a short tap on the structure signals …Showtime!


Through these dedicated volunteers, compelling portraits of artists will come to life with all the theatrical magic that makes the Pageant a one-of-a-kind, must-see summer tradition, on a stage where reality and appearance seem to struggle for dominance. Each year, a portfolio of artworks are chosen around a theme which promises to be as engaging intellectually as it is visually.


The Pageant’s history traces back to Laguna Beach’s early days as a tiny, idyllic art colony, held first in August, 1932, as a way to draw in tourists. As it happened about then, Laguna Beach was looking to brand itself to the outside world. The Olympics were being held that summer in Los Angeles, 50 miles north, and Laguna’s artists were hoping to draw some of that attention. So they invented a spectacle of their own: the Festival of Arts. Artists opened their studios and displayed their works, while people dressed up as “Whistler’s Mother” and “Mona Lisa,” and marched down the street, leading visitors to the festival. After a few years, a local entrepreneur decided that the Pageant needed an upgrade, and injected some real rigor into the show. He scouted for people whose faces actually bore a resemblance to the figures in famous works. His wife added music and narration. He found a dedicated spot for the performance and set the groundwork for the spectacle that the Pageant is today. Today, the iconic show has become a phenomenon and considered the crowning jewel of Laguna Beach, arguably one of the most unique productions in the entire world.


Asked to reveal some of the artists whose stories and works will be included in “Made in America,” Pageant Director Diane Challis Davy shared several, many of them acknowledged masters of American art: Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Norman Rockwell, Daniel Chester French, Luis Jimenez and John Nieto. She continued, “We’re going to ‘flesh out’ and ‘paint’ more detailed portraits of the individual artists. I want to make these artists, regardless of their time periods, real and identifiable for the audience.”


She continued, “I’m especially pleased about two of the segments. One is a tribute to the inspiring story of African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (“Hiawatha’s Marriage” and “Death of Cleopatra” are toward the beginning of the first act). The other is our re-creation of a photo by Dorothea Lange, accompanied by two songs written by Woody Guthrie. The photo illustrates the heartache of the Great Depression and our tableau is followed by the re-creation of a brightly colored WPA mural that celebrates the resiliency of the American ‘can-do’ spirit.”


Other artists represented this year includes Thomas Sully’s “Passage of the Delaware,” John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence,” George Caleb Bingham’s “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap,” Karl Bodmer’s “Bison – Dance of the Mandan Indians,” Frederic Remington, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty,” Jo and Edward Hopper, Duane Hansen and Matthew Rolston’s “Art People.”


The show closes with a big dose of nostalgia with the Pageant’s recreation of “The Last Supper” by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, radiating infinity aura, which has been the Pageant’s traditional closing tableau since 1936.


The crew behind the scenes are Director Diane Challis Davy; Scriptwriter Dan Duling, Ph.D.; Narrator Richard Doyle; Technical Director/Lighting Designer Richard Hill; Casting Director Nancy Martin; Costume Director Reagan Foy; Makeup Director Allyson Doherty; Master Carpenter Matt McKibbon; Construction Foreman David Talbot; Master Electrician/Video Lighting C.W. Keller; and Set Construction Technician/Welder David Marceau.


How you get to it: Unless you take the coast, in order to get to Laguna Beach, you have to leave Orange County proper and pass through a long, wild, savage, beautiful canyon. The canyon is not plausible, not at all, not for a moment. Mountain lions and bobcats hunt among its looming otherworldly boulders. These boulders were sculpted in the Mannerist style, eons ago, by water and wind. They are a geological rebuke to the very notion of poured concrete. The wildness of the canyon is a minor miracle: Over the decades, Laguna Beach residents have fought hard to protect it from Orange County’s creeping sprawl. The effect is stunning. Driving through it, after Orange County’s flat, clogged superhighways, feels like passing through a tunnel, a portal, an existential filter, an alimentary canal. You can feel the canyon scraping the O.C. off you as you drive. At the very end of the canyon, just before it dumps you into the Pacific Ocean, you reach the headquarters of the Pageant of the Masters—the place where the old masterpieces are literally brought to life.


Pageant of the Masters, Made in America: Trailblazing Artists and Their Stories, runs July 7 – September 3, 2021. Performances are nightly at 8:30pm and tickets start at $30 per person. A Pageant ticket is also a season pass to the 2021 Festival of Arts Fine Art Show. For more information, ticket policies, and to purchase tickets, visit www.PageantTickets.com or by calling 800-487-3378.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report