‘Side Show’ at Drama Learning Center’s T.Y.A. by John Harding

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The mainly high school musical cast at Drama Learning Center is a long way from a mid-life crisis, but collectively they have a fixed sight on the midway crisis at the heart of the new T.Y.A. (Teaching Young Actors) Teen Professional Company’s production of Side Show.

Katie Bogdan an as The Boss invites visitors to "Come Look at the Freaks."  Photo by Erika Hagen.
Katie Bogdan (The Boss) invites visitors to “Come Look at the Freaks.” Photo by Erika Hagen.

It was standing-room-only on opening night last night – January 18th – when the lights dimmed in the intimate Drama Learning Center on Red Branch Road in Columbia. Still, it’s doubtful if many in the packed house knew what to expect from this little-seen Broadway art-musical.

Side Show, with music by Dreamgirls’ composer Henry Krieger and lyrics by Bill Russell, was nominated for four Tonys back in 1998. But it only ran 91 performances and has gotten most of its exposure since then in well-reviewed regional revivals.

Bravo, Drama Learning Center, for bringing all of the work’s sophisticated songs and adult themes to life with student performers whose voices, in many cases, are still changing.

Probably less-known today than the play itself is the pair of real-life movie-star sisters it honors. Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who caught the popular imagination in Depression-era America and were famously featured in Tod Browning’s controversial MGM shocker, Freaks.

Side Show introduces us to the pair as part of a carnival tent show presided over by a frustrated Madame Mussolini named The Boss. Katie Bogdan on opening night packed a lot of mockingly defiant glee into her introductory number, “Come Look at the Freaks.”

Daisy and Violet Hilton (Laura Taylor and Carter Grove) turn out to be a jarringly lovely centerpiece in The Boss’s tawdry display of nature’s oddities and more dubious presentations (Their rendition of “I Will Never Leave You” was heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time).

Laura Taylor as Daisy and Carter Grove as Violet struggle for self-identity against a fantasy backdrop of circus misfits in 'Side Show.' Photo by Erika Hagen.
Laura Taylor (Daisy) and Carter Grove (Violet) struggle for self-identity against a fantasy backdrop of circus misfits in ‘Side Show.’ Photo by Erika Hagen.

Among the latter is Jake, an African-American stagehand billed as “The Cannibal King” but played with dignity and power by guest artist Troy D. Hopper, the only non-student lead in the cast. He gave an emotional performance of “The Devil You Know.”

Terry Connor, a visiting talent scout for vaudeville’s Orpheum circuit (Seth Fallon), sees the possibility of a headline-grabbing novelty act in the conjoined sisters. With showbiz sidekick Buddy (Alexander Rothfield), the pair conspire to steal the sisters away from The Boss and bring them to the attention of a distraction-craving country.

The strength of the book by Bill Russell is how it manages to deepen and expand its themes from questions of exploitation to more timeless issues involving the yearning to be accepted as an individual, the fear of not fitting in, and the search for love and human intimacy.

At Drama Learning Center, director Stephanie Lynn Williams addresses all these themes while presenting the large cast in attractive stage compositions, never allowing the pace to slacken. It is a professional presentation all the way.

Live accompaniment for the score’s tricky, non-stop singing and underscoring is adroitly handled by Tiffany Underwood Holmes at the keyboards, with a notable percussive assist by Evander McClean on drums.

Lighting, costumes, and sets by the Drama Learning Center’ team of designers are all on the mark given the nature of the production.

Troy D. Hopper (Jake), far left, joins vaudeville promoters Seth Fallow and Alexander Rothfield in a plot to make stars of a pair of conjoined sisters. Photo by Erika Hagen.
Troy D. Hopper (Jake), far left, joins vaudeville promoters Seth Fallow and Alexander Rothfield in a plot to make stars of a pair of conjoined sisters. Photo by Erika Hagen.

There are no weak links in the cast, with the leads especially appealing in their respective solos and duets. The show was stopped several times by rowdy, appreciative ovations. All the young stars here will no doubt go on to other meaty roles and glowing reviews.

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Side Show plays through January 27, 2013 at Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance, $17 at the door. Seating is very limited, so don’t delay.For tickets, call (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

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Laura Taylor on playing Daisy Hilton in Side Show.


http://youtu.be/yMKOPwNuFZo