Come look at the freaks
Come gape at the geeks
Come examine their aberrations
Is this any way to begin a Broadway musical? Well, if the subject matter is any individual who has been the victim of prejudice, ostracism, or even the feeling of not fitting in or wanting to belong, then yes. Side Show, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Kieger, is an extremely necessary piece of work. Though it debuted on Broadway in 1997, it is only now receiving it regional professional premiere at the Media Theatre. The Media spends most of its season presenting classic crowd pleasers, but it should be noted that dedicated theater lovers have been able to see Thrill Me, The Wild Party, The Desert Song, and Dogfight in this historic building. Thanks are due to Artistic Director Jesse Cline, who has presented memorable productions of all of these.
Side Show tells the story of the Hilton Sisters (1908 – 1969), two twins who were joined at the hip. A surgery was never performed because it was felt that it might kill one or both of them. Forced to live every moment together, they developed very different personalities. Violet (Ashley Sweetman) longs for a simple, quiet life, while Daisy (Jenna Pastuzek) wants fame and excitement. The times (the 1920s and the Depression) being what they are, the only work they can find is being gawked at in sideshows or in vaudeville, which turns out to be only an upper class freak show. The two actresses are totally convincing as sisters, talented singer/dancers, and conjoined twins. Their performance of the theme song “I Will Never Leave You” or the unforgettable “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” creates powerful audience sympathy and identification.
The supporting cast is first-rate as well. Darnell Abraham, as the sisters’ guardian and best friend, Jake, strikes sparks when he tries to convince the girls not to leave the sideshow with “The Devil You Know.” Later, he tragically answers their question with one of the scores most moving moments, “You Should Be Loved”. Two promoters, the shy and secretly gay Buddy (Derek Basthemer) and the more cynical Terry (Bob Stineman), oversee the sisters’ rise to fame. These actors manage to be likable in spite of the fact that the characters are obviously using the girls for their own financial gain. Brian Michael Henry, as fellow vaudeville performer Harry Houdini, beautifully renders the song “All in the Mind,” while Kelly Briggs is a malevolent presence as the girls’ abusive stepfather. The ensemble makes a strong contribution as reporters, bystanders, and various sideshow freaks.
The Media Theatre’s production uses the songs and script from the 2014 Broadway revival version of Side Show, with additional book material by Bill Condon. Owners of the original cast album will notice that nearly half the songs have been eliminated and replaced by equally excellent numbers that better define the characters and the period. This includes a long sequence telling the sisters’ fascinating backstory. (However, I missed the horrific “Tunnel of Love,” which was a highlight of the original production.) Lyricist Russell goes right to the agonizing heart of the situation with new, chipper vaudeville numbers such as “Very Well-Connected” and “Stuck With You” (where “you” rhymes with “glue”). Composer Krieger (of Dreamgirls fame) captures all of the offstage angst and is a skilled pastiche artist with the many onstage numbers.
Director Cline, abetted by Scenic Designer Matthew Miller, actually creates a sideshow atmosphere. The audience walks through the deserted theater, past historical sideshow banners, onto the stage, which has been converted into a tent-like atmosphere with chairs on risers. Slides projected on a large screen set the scenes, while historical photographs of real sideshows remind us that this is a part of our shameful history. Troy Martin O’Shia’s lighting not only skillfully lights the stage, but also creates a carnival-like atmosphere for the audience. Jennifer Povish’s costumes carefully span the eras from Mary Pickford to Jean Harlow, while Patricia DelSordo’s wigs complete the illusion. Dann Dunn’s choreography works for both the jovial vaudeville songs and the more sensuous “Private Conversation.”
Carl Park’s sound design does not use body microphones. This offers the rare opportunity to hear the human voice unadorned. The three-quarter staging and the subdued musical direction of Christopher Ertelt result in a “chamber” Side Show that is much more intimate that the original production. During the quieter moments, I actually had to lean in to catch the lyrics. Bravo!
Side Show plays through March 26th. Catch it now, for who knows when it will be presented again? This is one production you do not want to miss!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.