Times Staff Writer

This much can be said for the latest edition of Laguna Beach's venerable "Pageant of the Masters": It is nicely eclectic, quaintly diverting and stunningly crafted.

As usual.

It is also too kitschy, more than a little gimmicky and much too innocuous.

As usual.

The pageant, which opened its 49th summer season this week at the Irvine Bowl Park and runs through Aug. 29, has had years to perfect this rather peculiar kind of show: real-people tableaux that slavishly imitate famed paintings, sculptures and assorted artifacts.

As the latest production demonstrates, the pageant isn't about to tamper with a format that has brought it international repute and huge box-office success. (This summer, the pageant is expected to be sold out for the 19th straight season.)

Consider the pageant's Leonardo da Vinci.

At the preview performance Tuesday night, "The Last Supper" was, as usual, the evening's big finale--a jumbo reproduction that was radiantly lighted, reverently re-enacted and scrupulously detailed.

Yet there was something vacuous about this "living" Leonardo. It may have received the most audience "oohs" and "ahs," but the response seemed more the result of clever technology and human posturings than of any artistic revelation.

Much of the pageant's appeal, no doubt, is due to the sheer novelty of seeing tableaux vivants at all in this day and age.

Not too surprising, there is no other stage presentation in the world quite like the "Pageant of the Masters." The Laguna Beach faithful don't consider a similar show in American Fork, Utah, a real rival. The Utah version, started in 1974, is a great deal smaller.

Furthermore, the Laguna Beach pageant has rejected every move to take the show outside the city. This has included overtures to appear at the Hollywood Bowl or Greek Theatre, and to take the pageant on national tour. Instead, organizers are planning a $5-million revamping of the pageant's Irvine Bowl complex, including a 600-seat expansion to the 2,662-seat outdoor theater, the pageant's home since 1941.

Even in the relatively small Irvine Bowl, the "Pageant of the Masters" is quite a spectacle.

Begin with the cast of posing volunteers: 264 men, women and children who work in alternate-night shifts. Watching them in action is part of the show.

It isn't easy. Many cast members are dressed in robes of paint-stiffened muslin, their faces caked with multihued makeup. Some have to pose rather precariously, using hand- or footholds, in sets as big as billboards. Others are coated with the gold, bronze or ivory colors needed for statues and bas reliefs.

On stage, the posers go about their work with deceptive aplomb. Tuesday night, anyway, most volunteers held their positions for the 90-second stints with hardly a twitch or waver.

Unfortunately, these volunteers' backstage travails are not fully explored. The performance did offer a hint of the pageant's inner workings: The two girls posing in a 12-foot-high set for a Winslow Homer seaside painting were wheeled on stage still perched outside the slots cut into the set for them. The stage lighting was also incomplete, a kind of sketchy red hue.

But producers missed a chance to take the audience step by step in the mounting and lighting of the Homer tableaux--a fascinating process that makes the final product all the more remarkable. Such a sequence would bring a freshness, not to say a surprise element, to the production.

There aren't very many surprises in this year's "Pageant of the Masters." The production, a 52-work bill that cost $650,000 to stage, is true to form.

There were the paintings that simply don't lend themselves to this tableaux format. The most obvious lapses were a severe pointillist work, "L'Air du Soir," by Henri-Edmond Cross, and the highly stylized Japanese silk-panel art of Utagawa Toyoharu.

Most of the other two-dimensional efforts, however, worked magically. Donna Schuster's wispy "On the Veranda" and the raucous early-century circus posters were near-perfect mergings of humans, lighting and painted surfaces.

It was again the sculptural works that were the visual knockouts, especially the creamy-gold, Art Deco dancers of the Jazz Age series and the exquisitely detailed bas reliefs, artifacts and temple columns of ancient Egypt.

There were, to be sure, moves by pageant director Glen Eytchison to try something beyond the tried and true.

This year, he has tried to inject more oomph to the show: the showcasing of American Indian artist John Nieto's starkly powerful images; a defter use of contrasting thematic music styles; a quickening of pace in key set changes, including an adroit use of revolving and movable set platforms.

But Eytchison's efforts were mere embellishments to a show type that is, essentially, stilted, plodding and anachronistic. The "Pageant of the Masters," after all, is a good deal closer to the waxen images of, say, Movieland's celebrity gallery and Disneyland's "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln."

And, like the mellifluous narration given each year by Thurl ("Tony the Tiger") Ravenscroft, the Laguna Beach pageant has changed little in another respect. It remains a show that is pretty, unfailingly pleasant and overwhelmingly bland.

A perfect way to while away a midsummer's night under the stars.

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