Come look at the Freaks!! On the heels of their impressive 2004 inaugural season that included productions of Merrily We Roll Along and The Last Five Years, New Stage Collective, an up-and-coming theater company in Cincinnati, tackles the challenging musical Side Show for their major production this summer. Side Show is the unique tale of romance, fame, and heartbreak experienced by the conjoined Hilton Sisters. New Stage provides a wonderfully entertaining, musically thrilling, and thoroughly captivating production of this high-powered show.
Side Show created a lot of buzz on Broadway in 1997 when it earned mostly positive critical recognition and hugely devoted fans, but still closed after only four months. Many who saw the show loved it, but the show just couldn't catch on with ticket buyers (with blame often targeted toward bad marketing, an off-putting title, or a lousy logo). Despite its four nominations, the already closed Side Show was shut out of Tony Award wins, losing to bigger hits such as The Lion King and Ragtime.
The show begins in the 1930s at a second-rate sideshow where "Siamese" twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are the main attraction. With the assistance of a handsome talent scout named Terry, the twins leave the sideshow (and their mean "Boss") and try their luck on the vaudeville circuit. With help from Terry's assistant Buddy and the twins' friend Jake, the ladies set out to find fame and love. However, their unique physical limitations, as well as some personal biases, present obstacles in their pursuit of attaining their dreams.
The book by Bill Russell is engaging and clearly structured. Once audiences get past the oddity of the freak show performers and the slightly muddled opening fifteen minutes, they find, in Daisy and Violet, fully realized characters with a strong emotional pull. With a fine mix of humor, romance, conflict, fantasy, and showbiz pizzazz, the story of Side Show is a solid one.
However, the greatest asset to Side Show is its first-rate and tuneful score. The music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) is filled with passion and contains wonderful melodies. The strong lyrics by Bill Russell are thought provoking and soul searching (though a few times a bit predictable). The character songs provide some powerfully emotional moments, such as the rousing "The Devil You Know," in which the "freaks" argue about the merits of the twins leaving for vaudeville, and the gut wrenching "You Should Be Loved," in which Jake communicates a previously unspoken love. "Tunnel of Love" is a sexually charged soulful quartet and the ensemble shines in the heartfelt "Say Goodbye To the Freak Show." The score is at its best in the two soaring duets for the sisters that close each act, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You."
New Stage Collective has assembled some enormously talented young performers (including many pre-professional musical theater college students) for this production and the results are stunning. Kera Halbersleben (Violet) brings a believable vulnerability as the more timid sister, and Allison Elfline (Daisy) convincingly switches from eagerness to bitterness. These two accomplished actresses play off each other wonderfully and provide detailed portrayals of these unique characters. They also possess superb voices, which they blend and harmonize beautifully, and each demonstrates an impressive vocal belt.
As Terry, Michael Shawn Starks is appropriately macho, mature, and emotionally reserved, and he sings the role confidently. Joshua Steele is delightfully endearing as Buddy and likewise sings his material with ease. Though Kenneth Early (Jake) is the weakest of the leads in the acting department, his powerful, chill-inducing vocals more than compensate. As the mean proprietor of the side show (as well as a few other roles), Andrew Wehling displays a strong voice and the stage presence of a seasoned professional. The chorus members do well in playing multiple roles and in supporting these six talented lead performers.
Director Alan Patrick Kenny does extremely well in humanizing the side show freaks and building authentic relationships among the characters. Kenny has skillfully led each performer to demonstrate a fully layered emotional arc. His attention to detail is evident throughout, and the humor of the piece comes across well. Kenny's choice to stage the side show/vaudeville performance numbers as unpolished artifacts does well to contrast them from the strong character songs. His choreography borrows a bit too liberally from the original Broadway production but is nonetheless fitting. Praise is also earned by Michael P. Hamilton for his vocal direction and by Laurence Bonhaus, who capably leads a fine twenty-five piece orchestra (in what has been said to be the first post-Broadway production to use the original orchestrations).
The suitable set design by Larry Whalen consists mostly of bleachers that are turned and reconfigured throughout. Lighting by Pete Thornbury is remarkably effective, and costumes by Lori Ritchie and Patt Zurlinden are attractive and period appropriate.
Side Show is a musical that leaves the audience feeling optimistic that even though these sisters may not reach their dreams, they will nonetheless persevere in life with dignity and grace. New Stage Collective does well in performing this passionate and musically exciting show. A great score, near perfect lead actors, and strong direction make this a production to cherish. Side Show was presented at the Xavier University Gallagher Student Center Theatre on July 30 and 31, 2004.