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LETTERS TO EDITOR
By Elyse Sommer
Side Show in Los Angeles
Ideally, a musical is an experience in which all the assets are so tightly integrated that it's as hard to separate its strengths from its weaknesses as Siamese twins from the bond Nature imposed on them. This kind of integration of book, music, production values is what puts reviewers in the happy position of being able to give their critical eyes and ears a rest as they simply report on a show which sizzles on every theatrical burner. No yeah buts, no quibbles! Just a high five to go get your tickets and go.
The story of the Hilton sisters who during the thirties triumphed over the curve life threw them to become successful vaudeville stars has already proven its appeal to writers and film makers. The thirties time frame, the lingering and subliminal pull towards freak has all the earmarks of a strong and unusual book musical -- maybe even one of those no quibble rarities. On the other hand, as there was a certain amount of anticipatory schadenfreude evident long before Titanic opened, Side Show was also preceded by a ripple of quips like "Siamese twins-- sounds like a gimmick!" and "side by side, how're you going to find a bed that wide?" So right from the start, these predictions and opinions about this show seemed as divided as the on-stage twins were to be indivisible.
While I think Side Show has enough assets to make it survive the critical and word-of-mouth naysayers who preceded me to the Richard Rodgers, neither is it a no quibble show. Looking at it as a four-legged stool, what you get are two rock-solid legs -- performances, production values; and two that tend to wobble -- story line and music.
Let's consider the legs that give Side Show its considerable entertainment and emotional strength.
Emily Skinner as the ambitious and flirtatious Daisy Hilton and Alice Ripley as the more internalized homebody Violet Hilton are marvels of synchronization and individuality. They simulate their unfortunate connection without gimmicks, just practice-makes-perfect closeness that never once slips from the unseen piece of flesh. Best of all, they give such totally empathetic performances that they do manage to make that other connection--directly to your heart. The emergence of both sisters as women who while doomed to remain hostage to their bodies gain the strength to exercise some independence over their lives is both touching and convincing. Their song delivery is impressive both in their solos and duets.
There are four men in the Hilton sisters' lives -- the two opportunists who love them but not enough, (Jeff McCarthy as Terry Connor the promoter; and Hugh Panaro as the limelight happy Buddy Foster); Jake (Norm Lewis) the aide-de-camp and friend who really loves Violet and is willing to marry her even though it means living with Daisy as well, and their original boss/owner (Ken Jenning). Of the four, the last two make particularly strong impressions. Lewis's voice is a show standout and Jennings gives the right air of Dickensenian evil to the puppet master pulling the strings not just of the Hilton girls but the entire ensemble of freaks he employs.
The entire cast, (22 including the main players) deserves particular commendation for their seamless transition from roustabouts to freak show performers to society people and parapazzis. It's this movement from the bleachers to the performance areas of the set that more than any words -- (sung or spoken--mostly sung since this is what's known as a sing-through musical) -- realize Krieger and Russell's ambition to show the connection between us and them, the ordinary and the freakily extraordinary of the world we live in.
The Production Values
Director and choreographer Robert Longbottom has assembled a fine production team. The set (by Robin Wagner) with its heavy reliance on several multi-functional, roll-about steel bleachers isn't the sort that will evoke gasps and applause. However, those bleachers are used to good effect, from the moment the cast, dressed in ordinary clothes (like ordinary people arriving at an ordinary entertainment event), fills the benches for the "Come Look At the Freaks" opening number. As the number ends and the ensemble moves from the bleachers to the performance area of the set we see how it abets the actor in shaping the connection between those in the show and those watching.
Of course any show about vaudeville isn't going to limit itself to a set without its share of showy and elaborately costumed production numbers and that's where the rest of the team-- Brian MacDevitt (lighting design) and Gregg Barnes (costumes) strut their talents. From the stunning first scene showing the Siamese twins in silhouette to several high energy vaudeville numbers, Side Show is dazzlingly and amusingly entertaining. Probably the best of these dazzlers are the "We Share Everything" with its smart Egyptian sound and images and nifty, Nile bluish-green sequin outfits and the Buzby-Berkeley/Ziegfield extravaganza , "Rare Songbirds on Display" with the twins in a swing and ensemble members playing swan harps. MacDevitt's lighting is also noteworthy in the "Tunnel of Love" number near the end. Through no fault of his, this number is forced to work too hard to try to reveal the turmoil within the men that will keep the two love stories from ending in the blaze of romance the neon lit pink hearts promise.
This brings us to those two wobbly legs of this musical stool.
The Story Line and the Music and Lyrics
The real Hilton sisters did work in carnival side shows as children and young women and eventually appeared in vaudeville and the movie mentioned at the end of the show is still available --a 1932 classic named Freaks. They also ended with them bagging groceries in a North Carolina food market and dying within hours of each other at age sixty The composers transformed their true stories into a musical with its main focus on the ordinary, easy to understand elements of their lives, specifically to succeed in show business (Daisy) and as a happy 1930's homemaker (Violet). Thanks to the heartfelt performances of Ripley and Skinner they succeed in giving us two touching heroines.
Unfortunately, the subtext of the connection Kreiger and Russell hoped to forge between the twins and the ensemble of freaks is realized visually but tends to collapse under the often mundane lyrics and repetitive sounding music. It's a pleasant enough sound but with more of a modern rock Broadway popera than a thirties flavor and beat. Perhaps the tendency to homogenize the darker freak fascination elements of the story is a bow to family audiences--but with that audience in mind, it would seem to me some heavy cutting would have been in order. The first act runs an hour and a half. The whole show, runs two hours and forty minutes, a long sitz for today's teenagers. I wouldn't bring any youngster under twelve to this at any length.