Side Show tells an ordinary human story through the lives of two extraordinary women
Published: August 24, 2010
Book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger
Through Sept. 4 at Mobtown Theatre
After only one performance, talent scout Terry Conner (Larry Munsey) and his partner Buddy (Chris Rudy) know they’ve hit the jackpot with their latest find. Sure, this particular act was initially a little rough when they first found it among the bearded lady, reptile man, and geek at the traveling freak show, but Buddy recognized genuine skill. So with the press primed and the act polished, Terry and Buddy unveil the Hilton sisters, Daisy (Shelly Work) and Violet (Amanda Rife). They smile their way through “We Share Everything,” a rather ordinary song and dance routine, but it turns the Hilton sisters into overnight sensations, thanks to their unusual relationship: Daisy and Violet are conjoined twins.
Inspired by the actual lives of the Hilton sisters, who were immortalized in Tod Browning’s Freaks and 1951’s semi-autobiographical Chained for Life, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Side Show ran for fewer than 100 performances when it opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997, but it earned four Tony Award nominations and has since gained modest appreciation as a cult favorite. As currently produced by Teatro 101, the young company started by David Gregory a little more than a year ago, the musical is an engaging mix of old-fashioned showbiz and contemporary cynicism. As told by Side Show, Daisy and Violet lived a life of near constant exploitation, first at the hands of a freak-show boss (the superb Jay Michael Gilman) during the Depression and later under the emotional infelicities of Terry and Buddy, who prove themselves willing to do just about anything to keep the sisters—and themselves—in the money-making limelight. Extrovert Daisy at first only craves fame; the shier Violet wants to have a husband who loves her like a “normal” woman. Side Show lets them both achieve their dreams, only through insincere mockeries of genuine feelings. Like their song and dance number, Side Show on the surface is a clichֳ© about the costs of success, but with its rising starlets Siamese twins, what could be a mere gimmick turns into an unusually moving and humane portrait.
Better still, the production solidly clarifies Teatro 101’s creative vision. This upstart company isn’t looking to push drama’s proverbial envelope. Gregory is trying to do something that is ambitious in a different way: Teatro 101 aims to make mainstream pop entertainments on an underground theater scale. And with Side Show—with a cast of 16, a six-piece band providing the musical accompaniment, a lighting set that includes actors interacting with projected video, and for which Gregory serves as director, prop designer, co-choreographer, and co-lighting designer—Teatro 101 comes mighty damn close to outdoing traveling big-box spectacles in the 60-seat Mobtown Theatre space.
Other numbers are more emotionally potent, but the production’s arguable creative high point is the “Tunnel of Love” sequence. Prior to a much-publicized wedding ceremony involving one of the sisters during the 1936 World’s Fair, Buddy and Terry take Violet and Daisy on the Tunnel of Love ride, during which certain sham feelings are revealed and other real feelings unchained. The production wisely lets the opening freak-show setting serve as the stage’s versatile set decoration—the subtext being that no matter the price of admission, the Hiltons are gawked at—and movable steps get corralled into an amusement ride’s car. As the four take their seats, Gregory has the remainder of the ensemble surround them with red paper umbrellas, and they move through a choreography that implies the subtle change of scenery of motion. It’s an impressive visual moment achieved through modest means.
Of course, none of it would work if nobody can sing, and the cast here is capable—especially Keven S. McAllister, as the Hiltons’ one true friend Jake, who absolutely nails his two lead numbers. But it’s Rife and Work who have to sell the Hiltons’ condition. The actresses aren’t physically joined by a costume; instead, they spend almost the entire time standing and moving hip to hip. That old saw about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did backward in high heels comes to mind: Rife and Work’s performance is a collaborative duet between two actresses who have to create the illusion that they’re always two seen as one, together but alone—and then sing and dance on top.
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