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REVIEW: Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant Kills It (Park Square Theatre)

The cast of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, opening Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

A new musical with a very wordy title opened in St. Paul last night. The show? The Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant by Keith Hovis. The verdict? Jefferson Township is one of the most striking, funny, and original full-length musicals to open in the Twin Cities in recent years.

You might think from the title that this is a show about pre-teens and their parents behaving badly in a child pageant. No, it’s not, but you’re only 20 or so years off the mark. This show’s about 30-year-old-ish former child pageant contestants behaving badly. A small town in the Midwest perks up when a crazy decision sets one-time rivals at each others’ throats, recreating the competition of their youth – complete with, in some instances, the original child-sized costumes. (This is a small example of the show’s abundant visual humor.)

Dance-off! L-R: Kelly Houlehan (as Frannie Foster Wallace), Ryan London Levin (as Liam Ackermann), and Leslie Vincent (Valerie Hutchinson, the titular pageant’s 1996 Queen). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township began its life at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and was subsequently picked up by Park Square Theatre for its current season. The 60-minute version won a Critic’s Pick award from the Arts Reader; many rewrites and development session later, its full-length version clocks in at 2 hours, 30 minutes, counting the 20-minute intermission. The result flies by, with an inventive score, catchy songs, and hilarious lyrics; the script – like the music and lyrics, also by Hovis – is filled with memorable one-liners and a few carefully timed poignant remarks.

Park Square’s production reunites the original cast of Kelly Houlehan as Frannie Foster Wallace, Ryan London Levin as Liam Ackermann, Zach Garcia as Travis Hernandez, and Leslie Vincent as Val Hutchinson. As a sample of the setup, Val has enjoyed a two-decade reign as pageant queen, ever since a tragic accident two decades prior literally cut short both the pageant and a contestant. The cast is in fine form, with brilliant chemistry and tension crackling between them. Director Laura Leffler and choreographer Antonia Perez make a fine use of the Andy Boss Thrust Stage, with the action spilling into different corners of the theatre without compromising sightlines. A 3-piece backing ensemble led by Brian Pekol knits together into a tight sound.

Travis Hernandez (Zach Garcia) meets with Valerie Hutchinson (Leslie Vincent)’s shrine to victory. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

The score of the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant is one of its standout features. The songs are distinctive and fun, written in a wide variety of styles (try to guess which song will be a rap); some of the many gems include “Sparkling Junior Champion”, the inventively staged “Psychological Warfare”, and “Dear, Dead Grandma”. A number of songs skewer the small-town quirks of the show’s Jefferson Township namesake, but the small town gets its day.

Identifying the target audience of a show is often a critic’s hardest task. Anyone in their 20s or 30s who has experienced some career or lifegoal disaffection will find Jefferson Township especially funny, as will anyone who’s ever made tradeoffs between big city and small town life. The packed opening night house skewed from 20s to 80s and ate the show up.

Moving back into your parents’ house at 30 comes with a few drawbacks. But the old-fashioned corded phones make up for it, right? L-R: Frannie (Kelly Houlehan) and Val (Leslie Vincent). Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant plays through July 28 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine