Also see John's review of Golda's Balcony
Side Show is certainly a piece to be admired for its ambitions and sheer audacity of subject matter. If as Urinetown's Little Sally tells us, a bad title can kill a show, a plot summary like "it's about the love lives of a pair of conjoined twins" (the real-life Violet and Daisy Hilton, who rose from freak-show performers to vaudeville and film stars) might send audiences running as far and as fast as they can. Ironically, this musical, with an opening number than exhorts us to "Come Look at The Freaks," has its heart in some quite traditional places. The conjoined twins, though shown as the only freak show performers with authentic physical abnormalities (the others are faked), are in fact the most uncomplicated and likable characters of the piece. Their desires are simple enough – Daisy wants fame, Violet a husband and family.
Their desires are so modest that the twin sisters have less of a journey than the men whose attentions they attract. The twins' co-star Buddy Foster (Eric Lindahl) cares so much about Violet he offers to give her the marriage she desires in spite of its obvious obstacles. Their manager Terry Porter (Brandon Dahlquist), recognizing he's not willing to attempt marriage to a woman with whom he can never be alone, refuses to acknowledge his increasing attraction to Daisy. There's greater tension in the men's stories, creating an imbalance between the male and female lead characters that is compounded by much stronger vocal and acting performances by the men. Dahlquist, looking period-appropriately like a blond matinee idol with a Clark Gable mustache, has a commanding voice and stage presence, while Lindahl is a sweetly boyish Buddy who can sing and dance with the energy and charm of a Donald O'Connor. As Violet and Daisy, Andrea Prestinario and Vanessa Panerosa's pleasant but thin voices suffer by comparison to the vocal power of their leading men. Further, their roles haven't been given a lot of nuance by author-lyricist Bill Russell and they don't quite manage to create it on their own. Still, they create sympathetic characters and handle the challenges of dancing as conjoined twins most impressively. Aaron Holland gives a nice edge and solid vocals to the long-suffering Jake, and Rus Rainier captures the sleaze of the sideshow Boss.
Director Stephen Genovese, as he did with The Wild Party, gets some great work from his ensemble, who convincingly act a variety of parts that includes freak show performers, reporters and vaudevillians. They execute the intricate choreography of Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters with style and precision, and sing the Henry Krieger score beautifully, though music director Scott Williams and his five-piece band might have doubled up on instruments a bit more to give the reduced orchestrations more variety and texture. Genovese's staging is a bit symmetrical and predictable, but he keeps his cast from going over the top in their creation of an exotic, uncomfortable milieu. He creates an honest, believable picture of another time and place, maintaining a balance between a presentational style and an acknowledgment that the characters and plot are based on real-life people and events. There's not room for much scenery, and John Zuiker's set, framed by some terrific sideshow posters, is a simple one. It's mostly a movable panel that is more suggestive of the sideshow than the presumably more elegant settings of the vaudeville houses the Hiltons later played.
If Side Show is a minor piece, it's an honest one, with resonant themes like our need for human connection, and the potential conflict between seeking social acceptance and maintaining personal integrity. Though the show premiered on Broadway less than ten years ago, it's hard to picture this sort of original, challenging and thoroughly non-commercial concept being produced in such a venue again anytime soon. No matter. It may find a better home in the black box and storefront theaters where audiences are more ready to be challenged, and at ticket prices of $25 or less, a bit more willing to take some risks. This piece should never fail to find willing and talented young performers like this cast, looking for meaty and age-appropriate roles in which they can hone and show us their skills.
Side Show will be performed Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave through July 9. Tickets are $20 and $25. For information call the TBC box office at 773-327-5252 or go to www.BoHoTheatre.com and click on the Side Show logo.