Though they may not garner nearly as much press as their "Mainstage" counterparts, the workshop productions that make up the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Studio Series are usually very interesting and challenging, and often ultimately more rewarding. CCM's latest musical theater workshop is Side Show, a favorite among many "show freaks," featuring one of the best scores heard on Broadway in recent years. CCM provides a capably staged and well-performed production of this stirring show.
Side Show created a lot of buzz on Broadway in 1997 when it earned positive critical recognition and hugely devoted fans, but it still closed after only four months. Many who saw it loved it, but the show just couldn't catch on with ticket buyers (bad marketing, an off-putting title, and a lousy logo were to blame). 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 and his assistant Buddy, the twins leave the sideshow (and their mean handler) and try their luck on the vaudeville circuit. With their sideshow friend Jake along to help, the ladies set out in search of fame, acceptance and love. However, the conjoined twins find that 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 a certain level of uneasiness with the oddity of the freak show performers, they find, in Daisy and Violet, fully realized characters with a strong emotional pull. The story of Side Show is a solidly told one and includes a fine mix of humor, romance, tension, fantasy and showbiz pizzazz.
However, the greatest asset to Side Show is its first-rate, 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 or "cute"). 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 gets a chance to shine 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."
CCM's wealth of talented students is put to excellent use in Side Show. Meggie Cansler (Violet) is tenderly sympathetic as the more timid sister, and Katie Klaus (Daisy) believably switches from ambitiously hopeful to jaded as her dreams fade (and she shows a bit of Mae West sass). These two young performers are accomplished actresses, providing well-rounded and layered portrayals of interesting characters. They also display their strong vocal abilities as they blend remarkably well, and belt and harmonize with ease. As Terry, Thad Turner Wilson sings like an angel and is a fine actor, but needs to bring more grit in the role. Ryan Strand is a fun and steady Buddy, but he rushes the delivery of some of his lines/lyrics. As Jake, Edwin Maurice Henry soulfully sings some of the piece's most challenging material with winning results. Andrew Ford is fittingly smarmy and menacing as the mean proprietor of the side show, and sings powerfully.
The ensemble does a great job of maintaining characterizations throughout each scene, and the entire cast should be congratulated for excellent diction. From the ensemble, Kristine Reese deserves special mention for her impressive belting as the Fortune Teller. The entire cast is so technically precise that, in an odd way, it sort of detracts slightly from the piece at times. Some of the songs are meant to be performed with a level of raw emotion that is somewhat muted by the commitment to sound technique. But, these are very minor criticisms. The cast does a superb job overall.
Director Jeremy Gold Kroneberg stages the musical with much activity and realism. His darker approach to the material works generally well, though some of the humor of the piece, especially in act one, is diminished as a result. Kroneberg's storytelling, however, is very clear, and the ensemble numbers (including the freak show scene and "The Devil You Know") are handled with wonderful care. He also does an excellent job of conveying the difference between the internal thoughts expressed by characters versus the lines and lyrics that they actually intend to be verbally communicated. This distinction is accomplished through the use of a small echo sound effect and lighting during the "unspoken" thoughts. The choreography by Connor Gallagher is original, fun, and in the suitable vaudeville style. Fans of the show may miss the full out orchestrations of the score, but the four-piece orchestra for this studio production does a wonderful job.
An attractive yet utilitarian set design by Matt Steinbrenner features fabric that is supported in various ways and moved to convey setting (such as a big top tent and a theater's proscenium arch). The costumes (Ellie Steingraeber) and wigs (Andrea Moriarity-Dahlberg) are visually stunning and period appropriate. The lighting by Bradley Clements and sound design by Joshua F. Moehle are first-rate as well.
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. Because it is so rarely staged, any well done production is one to treasure. CCM delivers an extremely worthwhile production, and one that is more fully staged than most of their Studio Series shows. A great score, talented cast and solid direction, choreography and design make this a memorable theatrical experience. Side Show was presented at CCM from March 10 - 12, 2005.