Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Side Show
Foothill Music Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Love Sick

The Cast
Photo by Dave Allen
With much critical acclaim yet two failed attempts in winning a Broadway audience (1997 and 2014, with major reworking in between), Side Show may have a troubled Great White Way history, but has time and again thrived in regional productions across the continent (including its record-breaking, first regional run at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 1998). After all, what is there not to like in this intriguing bio-play that now Foothill Music Theatre stages once again for the Bay Area audience? Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) bring to full life the Hilton twins, who rose to widespread fame during the 1920s and '30s, in a musical packed with catchy lyrics, hummable tunes, and jaw-dropping anthems.

Joined literally at the hip from birth to death, Daisy and Violet Hilton went from being displayed soon after their 1908 birth in carnival side shows as oddities of nature to starring in their early twenties on the prestigious Orpheum Circuit's vaudeville stages. But no matter how well they learned to sing and dance or how much they patiently and pleasantly catered to reporters' incessant questions about their love lives and daily routines (You want to be married someday? You bake cookies, too?), it appears from historical accounts, this musical's telling, and perhaps Broadway audiences' rejection of Side Show, that the conjoined twins were and will always be viewed in just the way the opening song says:

"Come look at the freaks,
Come gape at the geeks.
Come examine these aberrations,
Their malformations,
Grotesque physiques ...

They'll haunt you for weeks."

With that opening song and its earworm tune and phrases, we are introduced to a human menagerie of a seedy carnival's side show: bearded lady, boy/dog, geek who eats live chickens, half man/half woman, three-legged man, and many more. As the proprietor (played by Ken Boswell) hawks the show in his starched collar, too-short tie, and t-shirt and sings in a raspy, inviting, but still suspiciously creepy voice, we meet each individual he has collected from the dregs of society. But we also wait in full anticipation for the silhouette pair of girls behind the sheer curtains above. Sir, as his family of "freaks" calls him, sings with feigned paternal feelings, "Won't you please forgive me if I seem emotional for the stars of our show ... the Siamese twins."

Watching the entire spectacle from the sidelines are two outsiders in their spiffy ties, hats, and city wear: Terry Connor, a talent scout for the Orpheum Circuit, and Buddy Foster, a song and dance man/teacher. Captured by the girls' pleasing personalities, hints of real stage talent, and curly-headed beauty, Terry and Buddy do all they can to persuade them to leave the side show and to come under their tutelage (singing together a razzle-dazzle "Very Well Connected"). In Terry's words, the girls are in no way freaks; they are actually "exotic, special, and rare."

As Terry, Sean Okuniewicz is the big-smiling, fast-talking, quick-to-flirt salesman who brings a pleasant, likeable set of tonsils to his singing. As the story progresses and the girls follow his advice, his attraction to Daisy (and hers, to him) goes from quick cheek pecks to full-on, puckered-lip action (again, mutual). So much so does the love story between the two advance amidst the growing fame of the now-stars of stages across America, that at one point Terry wrestles with his own erotic desires for the beautiful half named Daisy, against his more cautious side that realizes that the other half (Violet) will never go away. In a stunningly moving and haunting "Private Conversation," Mr. Okuniewicz dreams of waltzing romantically with Daisy, singing first in a voice exuding joy and then in one trembling with the stark realization how impossible this dream actually is.

The shyer Buddy is, of course, slowly attracted to the other twin, Violet. With a twinkle in his eye and pizzazz in his steps, Tarif Pappu moves and looks like a natural stage performer, even as Buddy is the quieter, more cautious half of the Orpheum team. When called upon to sing in staged numbers for vaudeville (e.g., "Stuck with You"), he does so with exuberance and clear tenor tones that laugh in the fun he is so evidently having. But when Buddy then proclaims, "Violet, I love you" ("New Year's Eve Sequence"), his gorgeous, silky voice is one that could potentially win any heart.

Watching these two outsiders win over the twins and persuade them to leave their home of misfit friends is Jake, a highly protective African American who plays a cannibal by day and keeps Sir's financial books by nights. Edward Clark leads the entire company of society's outcasts in a rousing warning to the girls that "the devil you know beats the devil you don't." In this song, "The Devil You Know," Mr. Clark bears down in his persuasive, deeply rich voice that soon takes on the pace, rhythm, and intensity of a tent-revival preacher as he cautions against the "fine-lookin', dream-spinnin', promise makin' devil you don't."

Jake does accept Terry's invitation to join the girls on tour, and he too finds himself falling in love with Violet—something he reveals with wide-open eyes showing feeling that clearly has as much depth as the sonorous sounds we hear him sing. But while proclaiming this love in "You Should Be Loved," Jake discovers the harsh truth that being a conjoined twin is not as freakishly scary to Violet as potentially being the other half of a mixed-race couple (welcome to the 1930s America).

The real stars of Side Show are, of course, Daisy and Violet. Henry Krieger has assured we understand that through the knock-'em-dead numbers he has created for the two to sing throughout the musical, coupled with lyrics by Bill Russell that could easily evoke unintended laughter ("I Will Never Leave You") if they were not so well placed in context and story. Both Jessica LaFever (Daisy) and Lauren Meyer (Violet) bring all the basic requirements and much more to ensure each anthem sings and soars, each vaudeville number tickles and tingles, and each confession of life-long dream emits genuinely felt empathy and emotion from the watching audience.

Daisy is the more outgoing of the two, often displaying the head tosses, sexy smirks, and flippant hand movements we might attribute to a Hollywood starlet. Violet, on the other hand, is more the girl-next-door type with eyes that look in dreamy trance to some far-distant, more-desired life of normality of a home, kids, and loving husband. But when they sing together, the two combine to alternate high and low registers in numbers that can bristle in sisterly annoyance ("Leave Me Alone"), tease to no end as only sisters can ("Stuck with You"), or soar to the heavens in full-voiced, harmonized brilliance ("Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You").

Sprinkled all around these main players is a large cast, all of whom have moments in the spotlight to register their individual prowess as actors and their universally adept voices for singing. Particularly notable are Vanessa Alvarez as the Bearded Lady with her singing voice that cuts through the arena with zap and zing, and the Fortune Teller, Christina Fortune, whose voice rings with clarity, charisma, and charm. When the full cast combines vocally, the harmonies are beautifully intertwined, every lyric is understood, and the effect is electric (e.g., "Come Look at the Freaks," "The Devil You Know," "A Great Wedding Show").

Brett and CJ Blakenship score hit after hit in their designed choreography that captures both the late Roaring '20s and the silver screen '30s in feel. Red-suited chorus boys join the twins in a snappy, stage show number ending with the conjoined pair and six boys in a grand kick line ("Ready to Play"). Buddy, Daisy, and Violet are joined by Ray (a personality-plus tenor with style, Kyle Arrouzet) in a peek-a-boo, choreographed "Stuck with You (Part Two)"—a number crowd-pleasingly cute, coy and clever in its designed steps and execution. But the hilariously and creatively designed and directed "One Plus One Equals Three" is a winning number where performers, choreographer and director (Milissa Carey) all particularly deserve an extra bow.

A virtual standing ovation must go to Shannon Maxham for the incredible variety of costumes she has created for Foothill's Side Show. Not only does each "freak" don a uniquely defining creation that deserves double-takes in all its details, but the many dresses the twins wear—often full of shining beads and other frills of the '20s/'30s—are enough to fill an entire dressing room. Add to all that the chorus boys' and girls' eye-popping and dazzling attire and even the country overalls and ladies' calicoes and straw hats worn by the large cast for the climactic Texas Centennial, and there is no way Ms. Maxham does not deserve major kudos.

Lynn Grant's double-leveled set with background tent tops and curtained recesses works equally well as carnival grounds or a vaudeville stage. That is particularly true as lighting designer Keenan Molner often focuses our acute attention on an isolated segment of the stage through well-placed/time spots while at other times creating the dusty, dark setting of a full-staged roadside carnival. Props galore enhance the carnival stars' attire and the dancers on stage through Kevin Stanford's artistry. Finally, an orchestra of six admirably performs Krieger's score under the direction of Dolores Duran-Cefalu.

Admittedly a huge fan of Side Show as soon as it arrived on the TheatreWorks stage almost twenty years ago (seeing that show no less then three times), I was curious to see how the changes made in the 2014 version might fare. After all, when eight original songs are cut, other numbers are tweaked and moved around, a number of new songs are added, and the storyline is enhanced with more details of the actual events surrounding the twins' lives, the show is no longer the same in many respects. Overall, I have to say I do not see the improvements adding much and, in fact, sometimes being quite abrupt and intrusive. This is particularly true for a rather long and sometimes bizarre flashback where we see events and people from the twins' earlier lives parade before us. A sequence with British doctors who want to separate Daisy and Violet is overly cartoonish (with the twins taking the beautiful "I Will Never Leave You" and singing it in a little-girl twang as the doctors are deliberating their separation—enough to cause heart burn for anyone who already knows and loves the show). A courtroom scene is really not that useful or necessary to understand the overall story. The one addition in this sequence that I do see as additive is a chance meeting the twins have as little girls with Houdini, during which Nathaniel Rothrock gets to shine forth in Nelson Eddy style with a heart-touching falsetto as he teaches the girls how to find a place alone, inside themselves.

But overall, the fascinating, moving story of Side Show still rings true in 2017 as it did in 1997 for what it means to be different and how we are all a bit different from everyone else is some way that sets us apart and can make us sometimes feel lonely and abandoned. Foothill Music Theatre has mounted a tremendously impressive Side Show in every respect: cast, direction, creative elements and music. And in 2017, this show about society's so-called freaks should cause all its audience members to do double takes in reading tomorrow's headlines, as too many of our current leaders seem to relish pointing out the differences inherently existing among us.

Side Show continues through March 19, 2017, in production by Foothill Music Theatre I the Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-327-1200.

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