REVIEW: Side Show - Academy for the Performing Arts, Huntington Beach

"Step right up and prepare to be amazed!"

“Come look at the freaks, Come gape at the geeks, Come examine these aberrations, Their malformations, Grotesque physiques, Only pennies for peeks, Come look at the freaks!”

So begins the opening number of “Side Show,” a musical now playing at Huntington Beach High School’s Academy for the Performing Arts Studio Theater, marking their spring season opener and annual fundraiser, and featuring a cast of 91 sensational performers, including the pre-show group which performs for one hour before show time. The fundraising event is complete with opportunity baskets, auctions, and hors d’oeuvres, with all proceeds benefitting APA’s Musical Theatre Department.

Directed by the dynamic and dashing Tim Nelson, who has formally begun his 21st year as Director/Musical Director of the Academy, Mr. Nelson effectively “ignites the creative artists of the future,” teaming with award-winning Artistic Director/Choreographer Diane Makas (also 21 years at APA). It would be difficult to find a more talented team elsewhere who could pull off such remarkable productions again and again.

This one in particular, no doubt, requires much finesse in its approach. Yes, it’s a gritty story, but also laced with bittersweet love, and requires a delicate balance. Director Nelson, who also serves as Conductor for the seven piece ensemble orchestra, synchronizing with beautiful accompaniment, pulls it off with relative ease, resulting in a cast that sounds and looks marvelous throughout.

Based on the true story of conjoined twins and famed entertainers Violet and Daisy Hilton, "Side Show" is a remarkable musical about acceptance, love, and embracing one’s uniqueness. It requires you to set aside some preconceptions about what you consider “normal” people. It asks you to put yourself in not one, but two pairs of shoes, with two inseparable minds and bodies, and imagine the effect of having to appease, indulge, tolerate everyday living — “evermore and always” — one’s choices, one’s urges, one’s tastes, with another human being.

To outsiders, as stars on the Orpheum Circuit, it seems that Violet and Daisy Hilton have everything they ever wanted. But to them, their lives have been a living nightmare. Although billed as the starring act of a run-down Texas sideshow, they are exploited by an overlord ringmaster with a narcissistic side, simply known as The Boss (Jack Borenstein). So the duo is more than eager to accept an offer of fame, fortune, and potential romance proffered by Terry Connor (Seth Merrill), a slick vaudeville talent scout, and his conflicted sidekick song-and-dance man Buddy Foster (Sean McCrimmon).

The miraculous thing is that this unsettling circumstance becomes (via Bill Condon’s 2013 revisions on Bill Russell’s original book and lyrics and Henry Krieger’s music) the platform for an emotionally transporting, melodically rich and profoundly entertaining evening. It’s the tale of how the twins trade a degrading “career” in the carnival for a more glamorous exploitation of the vaudeville circuit, and later even Hollywood. The underlying theme has a lot to say about how the world perceives other people’s oddities, disabilities, malformations or imperfections, and how you would see yourself coping in a world possessing these kind of hindrances. But although these sober recognitions of physical limits are not blithesome, the art and craft that has gone into the creation of this production is definitely buoyant. It’s evident in Carole Zelinger’s dazzling costumes and dresses for the sisters, Marissa Sellers’ extraordinary makeup design for the gallery of sideshow “freaks,” and the luscious resonances of Director Nelson’s superb orchestrations.

And of course, at the poignant center of theatrical gravity are the mesmerizing performances of Allison Bossart and Cassidy Love as Violet and Daisy Hilton, the real-life twins who, linked by a small piece of flesh at the spine, were plucked from tawdry midway tents and remade into Depression-era showbiz sensations. In the 1920s, the Hilton sisters were rumored to be the highest-paid act in vaudeville, earning an estimated $1,500 a week for singing, dancing and playing music in appearances alongside stars like Jack Benny and Bob Hope.

The unique stage portrayals of these two veteran stage actors seem finely calibrated to one another, operating as if one person — but, paradoxically, with two different personalities. They are perfectly cast and complement each other in every way. Ms. Bossart’s conservative Violet, seeking stability and the serenity of home and marriage, and Ms. Love’s slightly more bullish Daisy, hungry for attention and fame, clearly outline the sort of torment, confusion and fear that must have been a daily part of their lives in the sideshow.