Rhonda Coullet certainly has a good hook for a musical biography. She was Miss Arkansas 1965, but gave up her title and crown a few months after the Miss America pageant, where judge Joan Crawford didn’t take kindly to her appearance and attitude. Why she quit and how it affected her are at the heart of her autobiographical musical “Runaway Beauty Queen,” distinguished primarily by Coullet’s country-flavored rock and pop score and a strong cast of performers who make up a variation on a Greek chorus.
But the book, with its ethereal qualities, and Coullet’s own undeveloped performance, tend to block the audience from getting to know what she’s all about until the second half, when she’s more of an adult.
While the beauty pageant provides a major turning point in her life, it’s only one part of a story that first establishes her as a Pleaid, one of the seven stars considered goddesses in the heavens. She’s the invisible one and the sisters send her back to Earth to rejuvenate her light. Thus Coullet’s character, Sis, becomes a future rock goddess, a young woman who turns to pageants as her only way to sing in public.
The sisters who send her on the journey to Earth return as numerous characters, from mother to school friends, shaping her rise and artistic development. Each brings a strong voice (and beautiful harmony) throughout the show, but that heavenly element doesn’t bring the show full circle.
It does, however, allow Coullet to avoid a more straightforward biographical story and allow her to track her own life with the changing attitudes of women from the 1960s to today.
Staged on a cavern-like set by Roman Tatarowicz that shifts locales with each change in Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting, the show traces Sis’ childhood in Arkansas with a father who wasn’t around much. She spent a lot of time with a forward-thinking grandmother, lovingly played by Cass Morgan with a welcome earthy spirit.
Director Richard Hopkins, artistic director of Florida Studio Theater, establishes a good pace and brings out the individuality in the supporting cast members.
Mary Murfitt, who has helped create her own shows with a homey twang, plays Sis’ mother, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with her independent-minded daughter and her wandering husband.
Elizabeth Palmer milks the humor in an outrageous performance as a maniacal Joan Crawford, snapping a shirt hangar as she evaluates the Miss America contestants, while Janet Dickinson is daffily adorable as a pageant hopeful who comically tries a balletic turn from “Swan Lake.”
As a performer, Coullet usually displays a winning way with audiences, but she seems strangely detached from Sis. Through most of the show, she substitutes mugging and odd looks for a sense of self, particularly in the character’s younger years. It’s not until an emotional reunion in the second act that we really see her heart and personality emerge. Her smoke-tinged voice also seems to strain at times.
But there’s a story worth watching here and the score is at times bouncy, notably in the title song, a bit racy in “I’ve Got a Callous” and particularly heartwarming in Morgan’s rendition of “The Farmer’s Daughter.”
It’s just strange to think that the show might work better with another actress playing Coullet’s story.