With high-tech special effects becoming almost tediously prevalent in Hollywood fare, low-tech special effects are beginning to acquire a renewed glamour. We all know that those icky giant cockroaches in “Men in Black” were fashioned from fiendishly expensive computer-generated effects, but just how do the people behind Laguna Beach’s “Pageant of the Masters” make real live humans look so uncannily like a piece of Wedgwood china or a fresco from Pompeii? The annual pageant, which runs concurrently with the Festival of Arts, is the kind of Southern California oddity that everyone in L.A. has heard of but it sometimes seems no one has actually attended — which is in itself odd, since the event has been an annual event (with a World War II break) since 1935.
The show is a series of tableaux vivants, “living pictures” that re-create famous (and not so famous) works of art using actual people as the human figures. It may sound like a cheesy trick thought up by a chamber of commerce with questionable taste and a hunger for tourist dollars, but the form is an old one that dates back to medieval times. It was the entertainment of choice at various royal courts, and its influence was notable in 19th century theater staging — indeed it has lasted almost through the 20th: See Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”
If the conception may still raise a smirk from the higher-brow, the Laguna pageant’s execution would surely impress the artists whose works have been re-created in extravagant, impressive detail by a team of artisans some 50 strong. Beginning with a trio of artifacts from Tut’s tomb, the show (theme: “Hidden Treasure”) skips through the centuries highlighting works from a wide variety of media — from Gustave Caillebotte’s oil on canvas “Paris Street; Rainy Day” to Frederick Hart’s Lucite “Cross of the Millennium” to an entire brigade of terra cotta warriors from imperial China. Also included is a behind-the-scenes number that shows how elaborate makeup and costuming, impeccably painted backdrops and just the right degree of lighting combine to pull off the trick of making two local girls look (almost) like the ethereal, burnished figures in Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak.”
Not surprisingly, the magic works better on works whose appeal has nothing to do with subtlety. The gilt Serra Chapel Retablo from the mission at San Juan Capistrano is of a gaudy verisimilitude that would warm the heart of Franco Zeffirelli. (He’d probably also love the accompanying children’s chorus singing a hymn and holding candles.) A band of porcelain monkeys from 18th century Germany and various marble and gold treasures from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. are also “aah”-inspiring. But Andrew Wyeth’s famous “Christina’s World” and Fragonard’s “The Swing” are rather flat; they just make you want to see the real paintings again — rather a noble purpose in its own way.
Music director Richard Henn leads a loudly amplified but competent orchestra through pleasant arrangements of various genres of music. The script by Dan Duling is almost disappointingly respectable and occasionally mildly witty, and if Skip Conover’s narration of it grows tiresome, it’s only because his familiar announcer’s voice is rarely heard at such length at the Oscars or the Summer Olympics, which are among his previous stints.
The accent is on pretty here — nothing from Goya’s gruesome period, no “Raft of the Medusa” — and pretty can get a little monotonous, even if there’s the added fun of trying to catch the porcelain statue of St. Teresa of Avila blinking. At two acts and two hours, the pageant may be too much of a good thing; all special effects, after all, get less special with repetition. One is eventually put in mind of “Pride and Prejudice’s” Mr. Bennett admonishing his piano-playing daughter: “You have delighted us long enough.”