Review by Dennis Kempton
What struck me immediately about Side Show was the venue. Oddly enough, the interior of the Harbor City International Theater lends itself particularly well to the show. With its beams and intimate orientation, one feels, when the lights go up on Side Show, that one could be in a tent at the circus. The draping of rope lights crossing and meeting at the center of the house takes advantage of this peculiar ambience–for a peculiar show.
Side Show is the musical based loosely on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton–conjoined twins made famous for their vaudeville act and for their run on the circus freak show circuit. Daisy and Violet were the first set of conjoined twins born in the United Kingdom to survive more than a few weeks after birth and you can believe that fact was not lost on those in their lives. Their mother, a barmaid, sold the girls to her employer, Mary Hilton, who gave them not only her name, but an upbringing of harsh discipline and exploitation.
Sheryl Jensen directed this premiere of the show in the northland for Lundeen Productions at Harbor City International Theater. After last year’s successful run of Cabaret at Fitger’s Spirit of the North Theater, expectations for this lesser known show have been high. It’s a safe bet to say that the expectations have been met.
Side Show opened in October of 1997 on Broadway and ran for 91 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre to generally good reviews.
Gracie Anderson (The Who’s Tommy, The Wild Party) and Bree Taylor (Man of La Mancha, Cabaret) play Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively in this particular production. The story follows the twins’ discovery under the circus tent and moves through the years of their more celebrated identities as performers, highlighting, along the way, the ups and downs, loves, hopes, and heartbreak of sisters.
What’s touching about Anderson’s and Taylor’s performances is their harmony and their separateness. They are joined in their costumes and each scene and moment they move together is seamless and natural in what is, most definitely, such an unnatural way to be on stage. For sure, both actresses pack punches vocally and it is a delight to see a show where there are women singing the majority of the show’s numbers.
The show opens very strongly in the ensemble piece “Come Look at the Freaks.” Mike Pederson (The Boss) is a compelling stage presence with a considerable command of his own size and voice in character. He instills, dramatically, a sense of control and menacing greed around the care and actions of Daisy and Violet. In the opening number, we see the sad collection of side show spectacles, some of them obvious fakes and some of them unfortunate genetic misfortunes with nowhere to go. That’s the mood created at the top of the show and it’s executed superbly. One feels for the safety and care of the twins as they are “discovered” and encouraged to sing.
Gabe Green (Jake) establishes stage presence and vocal power early on as the twins’ protector of sorts at the side show and later on as they move into their new lives as performing celebrities. In the second act, Green lets loose and presents a heart-rending performance in the number “You Should Be Loved” that fills the house with his considerable vocal chops.
Nathan St. Germain (Terry Connor) turns in a significantly layered performance not only dramatically, but vocally, on stage as one of the twins’ promoters on the vaudeville circuit. From the light-hearted “More Than We Bargained For” in the first act to the emotionally charged “Tunnel of Love” in the closing scenes of the second act, St. Germain’s command of the musical components of the show are masterfully executed. In addition, we get to see a heartfelt performance of a man conflicted in his own emotions for Daisy and his confusion over his ability to love and his motivations for loving.
Peter Froehlingsdorf (Buddy Foster) is the other part of the duo promoting the career of Daisy and Violet. As the airy counterpart of Terry’s studied seriousness, Froehlingsdorf’s breezy characterization of Foster is a comedic lever between the two. It’s almost too comedic, though. When, later, in the action, Buddy must come to terms with his own motivations for “loving” and marrying Violet, it’s difficult to see him arrive there through the course of the show. This can be attributed more to the script than to the actor’s ability, but is a point to be taken in contrast to what is given to his counterpart in the script. Both St. Germain and Froehlingsdorf blend well together on stage, showing off both their musical theatre chops together in “More Than We Bargained For.” Froehlingsdorf shines in “One Plus One” in the second act along with Anderson and Taylor.
What is most fascinating about the performances of Anderson and Taylor is that, although they are joined together for their entire time on stage, they are remarkably interesting to watch separately. Anderson’s more outgoing and dramatic Daisy is as fully realized and distinct as Taylor’s often shy and reflective Violet. It makes the overall performance stunning in its emotionality, especially during “When I’m By Your Side,” “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” and the sadly hopeful “I Will Never Leave You.” The genuine chemistry coming from the stage between these two extraordinarily talented actresses is palpable and evocative. And, fortunately, their ability to “bring it” isn’t limited to either the acting or the singing. Their harmonies and their individual belts are at peak performance.
The ensemble choreography, by Amber Burns, is tight and well-done. With the costuming, this can be exceptionally challenging, but it is readily apparent that the actors have been capably prepared and the choreography makes use of the entire performance space with skill. The live accompaniment adds a favorable dimension to the feel and style of the show and, although the pit is directly on stage and on level with the actors, it is not overpowering for the actors’ ability to vocally perform.
What stands out significantly in the acting and in the story itself, is the deeply felt feeling of isolation and loneliness these two women have for themselves and for each other. Anderson and Taylor, frequently, show an intelligent emotionality in conveying their characters’ doubts, fears, and hopes about the practicalities of their peculiar existence. They definitely know how to act the act when they’re “on” and the actors transition believably from this public persona into the realness of their individual and conjoined private lives. It makes the story less of the freak show for which they were known and more of an intimate witnessing of how the celebrity of one’s own making and out of one’s own control, shapes the feelings, dreams, and destinies not only one’s own life, but of every other person with whom one comes into contact. Much credit is given to these two fine actresses for delving deep into the darkness, yet shining bright in their studied portrayals of Daisy and Violet Hilton.
See this show.
SIDE SHOW. Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell. Music by Henry Krieger. Directed by Sheryl Jensen at Harbor City International Theater for Lundeen Productions. WITH Gracie Anderson, Bree Taylor, Nathan St. Germain, Peter Froehlingsdorf, Mike Pederson, Sara Jane Baldwin, Deven Bromme, Kendra Carlson, Noah Cornwell, Jeff Crosby, Patricia Dorn, Abigail Gilbert, Heather Green, Nicole Guntzburger, Stephanie Hammon, Laura Lokken, Nate Olson, Lucas Rollo, Brenda Schwerdt, Dani Stock, Dave Taylor, and Tobi Taylor. Music Director: Ken Ahlberg. Choreography by Amber Burns. This show runs Thursdays through Saturdays with a 7:30 p.m. curtain and with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Habor City International Theater is located at 332 West Michigan Street in Duluth.
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