nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 26, 2006
Gallery Players' revival of Side Show is very entertaining, and at $15 per ticket, one of the true theatre bargains in town at the moment. This musical, which was seen on Broadway in 1997, tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who had a brief moment of stardom in vaudeville and then in Tod Browning's famous film Freaks. Taking only a few liberties with the facts and the chronology, Bill Russell's book for the show charts the rise of the Hiltons from a backwater side show to success in vaudeville to a publicity stunt featuring the wedding of one of the twins to one of their promoters to the arrival of Browning for the play's still rather jolting climax.
Structurally the show looks like Dreamgirls (which also features a score by Henry Kreiger), with a first act all about climbing the ladder of fame and a second act about coping with the personal relationships and sorrows that follow. Because Side Show is set in the early 1930s, in the waning days of vaudeville, it also reminds us of Gypsy, and indeed director Matt Schicker and choreographer Joe Barros have done a splendid job re-creating the tacky/glorious milieu of that great American entertainment form in its decline.
What sets Side Show apart from those two musicals and pretty much all others is, of course, the singular characteristic of its leading ladies—that they are conjoined at the hip, and presumed by just about everyone they come in contact with to be incapable of leading a "normal" life. Their first song has them telling us "I want to be like everyone else," but whether that can actually happen is sadly always in doubt. Schicker and his company play the story straight, without subtext, as an affirming tale of self-actualization: the twins end the first act wondering "Who will love me as I am?" and our sympathy is wholly with them and with the notion that, no matter what "affliction" any of us has to cope with (using a word from another of Russell's song lyrics), everybody is entitled to love and be loved.
Tiffany Diane Smith and Kristen Sergeant play Daisy and Violet, and they are very effective in creating separate individuals who have to go through life together. (They're less convincing in realizing the deep, strong bond that exists between the sisters, however.) Jimmy Hays Nelson is fine and likable as fresh-faced Buddy Foster, the usher with big dreams who discovers the girls in the side show and teaches them to sing and dance; he's also Violet's love interest. Matt Witten plays Terry Connor, the impresario who becomes the girls' manager in vaudeville (and the man Daisy falls in love with); he's a tenor singing a baritone's songs, which is problematic, and he's missing the depth and emotional ambivalence that Terry seems to be experiencing in a performance that's pleasing but somewhat glib. Neither couple exudes much in the way of heat; neither, unfortunately, does Melvin Shambry as Jake, the African American onetime "Cannibal King" from the side show who is the girls' closest friend and is secretly in love with Violet. Shambry fails to do justice to the score's big rousing love song, "You Should Be Loved," and the devastation of Violet's rejection of Jake doesn't register as a result.
But the show biz scenes all fizz and sparkle with exuberance and style. Schicker and Barros have made the show's opening into a discomfiting voyeur's paradise, with a menacing Boss (played with brio by Greg Horton) exhorting us to "Come Look at the Freaks" while a disquietingly authentic-seeming side show slithers and snakes around him. Schicker has put two authentic "freaks" on stage, billed here as Exhibits #9 and 10, in real life a duo named Roc-It and Amazon from the Disgraceland Family Freak Show; they do thinks like hammer things up their noses and suspend bowling balls from their earlobes. It all makes for a dazzling opening, and one that evokes the seedy, sad, disreputable environment from which we can only root for Daisy and Violet to escape.
When the girls hit vaudeville, the numbers they perform are all smashing: "When I'm by Your Side," the number with which they audition for Terry, has them juggling and jumping rope in naive unison; " We Share Everything," their show-stopping breakthrough, includes a delightful giddy Charleston and some sweetly tacky faux-Egyptian dancing, singing, and costuming.
Schicker uses the intimate space to maximum effect, and the show moves smoothly and quickly through numerous scenes, all delineated elegantly yet sparely by Joseph Trainor's sets, which consist mostly of movable wooden panels on wheels painted as placards representing the various show business destinations that the Hilton sisters arrive at as the story progresses. Melanie Swersey's costumes are terrific and plentiful throughout.
There's something lost in this fun production, however, and that's the deeper meaning that I believe the authors intended for their story. In the published text, and on Broadway, the show opens with the company singing "Come Look at the Freaks," about themselves, while dressed in street clothes, reminding us that there's a freak (i.e., an individual) inside every single one of us. The actresses playing Daisy and Violet begin and—wrenchingly—end the show separately, not "joined together." This concept helped make Side Show not just about searching for/deserving love but about asserting selfhood in an uncompromising way: the show's signature song "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" stops being a plea for pity and tolerance and becomes instead a challenge to understand and accept. Schicker and his company haven't tried to mine this particular depth of Side Show, and I'm sorry about that.
But what's here is undeniably enjoyable and highly professional. For those that didn't get an opportunity to catch this show when it was in New York nine years ago, this is a splendid opportunity to catch up with a rich and charming score and an authentically original and unusual musical play.