Stage: Wednesday, May 09, 2002
Tragically Hip

The two conjoined ladies of ‘Side Show’ stir Theatre Three.


lame those fickle tourists, outrageously high ticket prices, or the off-putting notion of a musical based on the doomed love lives of a pair of Siamese twins: Probably for all the above, Side Show closed on Broadway after just three months in 1997. Its producers lost about $7 million dollars, despite netting lavish critical notices and a pair of Tony nominations for co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. A Side Show original cast recording of Billy Russell’s lyrics and Henry Krieger’s score exists to memorialize those efforts, but locally you could’ve guessed veteran Theatre Three executive producer Jac Alder would be the man to revive this ambitious footnote in Broadway history. Years ago, Alder staged a fantasy sequence in which Jodie Foster waltzed romantically with John Hinckley Jr. (in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins), so his appreciation for arcane variations on the bloated musical form is long-established. Despite its subject matter, there’s very little that’s strange or lurid about Side Show; its too-familiar romantic yearning is simply embodied by a pair of what the lyrics refer to as “Mother Nature’s mistakes.” Mind you, this is also a condensed and fictionalized account: In order to lend some dignity to the memory of Daisy and Violet Hilton, real-life conjoined sisters and vaudevillian superstars, the authors omitted some deeply tragic truths about the girls’ lives. Their legal guardian beat and forced them at the age of eight to perform as carnival freaks in San Antonio. They ended as penniless and obscure grocery store employees, found curled up dead against a gas heater at age 60.

Director Alder submits to Side Show’s fast-and-loose juggling of the facts and emerges with one of his most cohesive and moving musicals in a decade. He deftly manipulates a cast of 18 performers and material that demands subtle treatment even as it could tempt lesser directors toward grotesque comedy. Only the sincere essentials are permitted — professional ambition, dreams of true love, show-biz chicanery — so that by curtain call, you will experience the Hiltons’ unhappiness without feeling an ounce of pity for them. Empathy is more like it; any one of us so-called “normal” folk could see our lives take a similarly lonely, if less public, path.

Side Show verges on pop operetta; only a handful of lines are spoken. And so Theatre Three has rounded up some vigorously able lungs to recount how Daisy (Julie Stirman) and Violet (Jennifer Freeman) are rescued from a freak-show family of cannibals, pig-faced boys, and quadruple-breasted women by an aspiring singer named Buddy (Ric Leal). He convinces skeptical promoter Terry (Eric Doumeret) that a legitimate act can be assembled around the Hiltons; they’re pretty, they can sing, and they can dance. Plus, it’s the Great Depression, and vaudeville, dying a slow death from radio and film, needs novelty. Daisy is thrilled at the thought of leaving her shabby Midway trailer; Violet has always been nervous under the spotlight and daydreams about marriage and children. In the show’s most stormily passionate number, the sisters’ best friend and protector Jake (a fearsome Keron Jackson) warns them “The Devil You Know (Beats the Devil You Don’t).” He fears for their safety and integrity in the wider world, but off they go to play everything from hair-ribboned, lollipop-toting coquettes who tapdance (the hilarious “When I’m By Your Side”) to exotic Egyptian queens (“We Share Everything”) before thousands of ticketbuyers. Offstage, amorous feelings simmer between the sisters and their handsome promoters (“Feelings You’ve Got to Hide,” a tender admonishment by Daisy to Violet). I won’t disclose further plot turns, but suffice it to say you won’t know which sister makes the greater sacrifice until the very end.

The large supporting ensemble meets the production’s physical demands and quick character changes admirably, but in the end, Julie Stirman and Jennifer Freeman as the Hiltons are the gentle, hopeful, determined soul of this bittersweet show. You might wonder how Theatre Three has conceived the sisters’ spinal connection — a combination of holding hands, pressing shoulders, and some ingenious movement choreography by Linda K. Leonard that might appear less strenuous than a big dance number but is far more complex to sustain throughout a three-hour show. It’s never less than convincing and never impedes the slow emergence of these women’s very divergent personalities. “I’m Daisy!” “I’m Violet!” are their chirpy, identical introductions throughout the show, a motif that grows more ironic as each becomes more desperate to achieve her goals. The moment one sister falls in love, and the other fears this will jeopardize their careers, it’s splitsville—psychologically and soulfully, at least—for this wonderful two-woman act.

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