Side Show, a 1997 musical by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, lasted just 91 performances on Broadway. The show about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton has since developed a cult following, and a major revival with Broadway aspirations is planned for the 2013-2014 theater season.
But first, Boca Raton’s risk-taking Slow Burn Theatre is having its say with a new production of Side Show.
Artistic directors Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko have built a solid, enthusiastic following for their three-year-old company with too-short runs of big, challenging musicals. As a neglected piece of musical theater, one that weds flamboyant theatricality to an involving story, Side Show is right up their alley.
That story centers around Daisy and Violet Hilton, real-life conjoined twins who began their showbiz career as exploited carnival performers before moving on to vaudeville and two notable movies: Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic Freaks and the 1951 exploitation flick Chained for Life. Book writer and lyricist Russell aims to show the emotional, psychological and physical complexities of the sisters’ lives in Side Show.
The musical tracks the twins’ rescue from a tawdry carnival built around nature’s real and fake supposed oddities, a Depression-era traveling troupe overseen by a brutal boss (Conor Walton). Attached-at-the-hip Daisy (Kaela Antolino) and Violet (Courtney Poston) are the show’s star attractions, earning their meager keep by singing a little and shedding their clothes when the boss takes money from men who want to gawk privately at them. Jake (Jerel Brown), a black performer who plays a cannibal in the carnival, watches out for them, in part because he’s secretly sweet on Violet.
Buddy Foster (Rick Peña), an aspiring musician, discovers the twins and brings his friend Terry Connor (Korinko), a vaudeville talent scout, to see them. The men, who see notoriety and dollar signs when they look at the Hiltons, quickly sell the pretty, talented sisters on jumping ship. Daisy longs for fame, Violet for romance, and the new arrangement gives them a taste of both -- with many painful complications.
Fitzwater, as always, does double duty as director and choreographer. Musical director Manny Schvartzman ably leads the hidden band and gets strong vocal work from the cast’s 17 actors, though the top-volume sound (by Traci Almeida) is just this side of painful . Designer Ian T. Almeida creates the tacky world of the sideshow and more lavish vaudeville sets, environments colorfully illuminated by lighting designer Lance Blank. Actor Peña doubles up as the production’s costume designer, providing an array of matching dresses for the twins, plus dozens of other outfits for the other actors, though many of the costumes don’t suggest the ‘30s at all.
The key performances from Antolino and Poston as the sweet-voiced sisters, Korinko as the conflicted Terry and Peña as confused Buddy are well-acted and vocally powerful, and though Brown’s singing isn’t on that level, he makes Jake an empathetic character. Walton is a convincing bad guy but goes a little overboard as the villain, practically twirling his moustache.
Look at Side Show critically and you’ll see why that first Broadway run wasn’t a long one. Though Kreiger’s music is rich, Russell’s book and lyrics are sometimes cliched, corny, even laughable; Daisy and Violet’s big final number, for example, is titled I Will Never Leave You.
Still, there’s enough to Side Show to justify revival dreams -- and another set of wild ovations from enthusiastic Slow Burn audiences.