"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.
The story also lays open with cunning tunefulness our squirmy curiosity over the twins’ personal lives. “We Share Everything,” the vaudeville number that kicks off Act 2, cleverly presents their situation as both a public joke and private ordeal; later, the novelty song “One Plus One Equals Three” takes the joke to more humiliatingly prurient lengths.
Alternating with these two lead roles on Saturday matinee performances are another powerhouse set of equally dynamic, equally charming APA stars, Jaedynn Latter and Olivia Aniceto. Assuming the roles of Daisy and Violet effortlessly, cosily, Ms. Latter and Ms. Aniceto both have an impressive stage presence as well as stunning vocals.
The Oscar-winning Condon, whose movie credits include the screenplay for “Chicago” and the direction of “Dreamgirls,” guided the show’s creators through some painstaking rewrites of “Side Show.” More than half of the show now is material that wasn’t in the short-lived 1997 Broadway original. It’s now a tighter, tauter piece which features unfussy, malleable sets. In APA’s show, for example - a double set of bleachers maximizes a minimalist setting in most of the scenes.
The “Side Show” songbook also contains a most ravishing score overall, especially spotlighting the pair of leading ladies, Ms. Love and Ms. Bossart, who give a pair of heart-melting showstoppers, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and the soaring musical loyalty oath, “I Will Never Leave You.” Among other endearing moments, they perform the songs, “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide,” and “When I’m By Your Side,” which adorably tests their skills with CPB dance moves.
Jake (Brennan Eckberg), as the sisters’ devoted protector and confidant, recruited by The Boss to look after the girls, is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the narrative, and becomes the show’s moral compass and a force to be reckoned with. Mr. Eckberg delivers the sorrowful “You Should Be Loved” in a breathtakingly deep, rich baritone and a shattering fervor, and his majestic rendition of “The Devil You Don’t” is nothing short of superb. Mr. Merrill as Terry, who falls for Daisy, adds leading-man suavity to his plaintive solo, “Private Conversation.”
His vaudeville number with the Reporters, “Overnight Sensation,” is beautifully performed. Mr. McCrimmon’s Buddy adds zest and stylish splendor when his vocals pair with Terry in several noteworthy numbers, “You Deserve a Better Life,” “More Than We Bargained For,” and a foursome with Terry and the girls in “Tunnel of Love.” Mr. Borenstein’s “Crazy, Deaf and Blind” reveals an even further dark, but showmanship side of the character, The Boss, and becomes his signature song.
If there’s any aspect of “Side Show” that has been resistant to any rewrite, it’s the musical’s final sequences - that cynical P.R. event which is disguised as Buddy and Violet’s wedding performed before a sold-out crowd in a Texas stadium. The song, “Beautiful Day for a Wedding” leads us into this rockiest of interludes, when all the romantic threads have to be tied up and the Hiltons propelled onto a higher plane of self-acceptance. Unfortunately, the sexually unavailable Buddy is balking, even on the promise of fame with a movie deal. As a last resort, Daisy turns the tables on Terry to save the day and proposes to him in the song, “Marry Me, Terry.” Ultimately, however, the girls both come to realize that it is their own relationship with each other that will sustain them.
Told in retrospect, the other freaks from the side-show help tell the story of the twins remarkable rise – a truly talented ensemble group that becomes Daisy and Violet’s safety blanket. The wonderful Daisy Tye steals many scenes as the Fortune Teller. Patrick McCormick’s strong-willed and sassy Bearded Lady is indeed a main standout in action and song. Jordan Halloran is the Geek. Monique Miley plays Dolly Dimples. Novelee Smedley is “6th Exhibit.”
The versatile Matthew Rangel is The Sheik, Scottie Richard becomes The Fakir, Josie Yadrick entices as the Snake Lady, Austin Skaggs is Reptile Man, Brandon Duncan is Strong Man, Breea Hayes astounds as Living Torso and Cara Fitzgerald portrays the famous Venus de Milo. Kai Arroya has double fun as ½ Man ½ Woman, Grace Gillett is the Albino, Staciabella Roy is The Tatooed Lady, and making us all gasp is Ethan Ahlstrom as The Human Skeleton. Dogmen are played by London Baskerville, Mia Buck, Cassidy Dorain, Amanda Sprowls and Sydney Stapp. In addition to this strong main cast are numerous groups of supporting talent made up of Harem Girls/Egyptian Dancers, Roustabouts, Vale Sisters, Reporters, Party Guests and Pre-Show Entertainers. Every one a delight on stage!
Additional Choreography is directed by Jennifer Simpson-Matthews with phenomenal assistance by Marlee Tierney; Lighting Design is by Kaitlyn Campbell; Scenic Design is by Chris Caputo, and Technical Direction by Josh Behrens.
Director Nelson has marshalled all the forces of modern musical theatre to make “Side Show” one of the truly great productions of this magnet high school. Harrowing, joyous, painful and inspiring in equal measure, it is a story that will touch audience’s hearts, and a stunning reminder of the importance of accepting and celebrating what makes us all so very different and unique.
“Side Show” runs January 11-13 and January 18-20, with Friday and Saturday evening shows at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Highly, Highly Recommended! Catch it now while the Big Top is in town! Tickets are $25 for general admission and $40 for reserved VIP at hbapa.org/see.
National Youth Arts