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Side Show — 11th Hour Theatre Company

 The 11th Hour Theatre Company production of “Side Show,” concert version though it was, satisfied a great curiosity.

      I saw the original production of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s “Side Show” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1997. My impression 17 years later was it had some bang-up musical numbers, particularly both act closers sung by the performers playing conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, but that some of the other songs were more matter-of-fact than revealing or poetic, an excuse to have a musical sequence more than plotting the right tune for an occasion, and that its book lacked depth and texture. Exemplifying the kind of reporting about them the Hilton Sisters claim in “Side Show” to fear, Russell worked in broad brush strokes to create an impressionistic portrait of them rather than going into a lot of detail.

       The 11th Hour production confirmed my memory. My 1997 criticisms hold. That said, I would gladly see the 11th Hour effort again. It was animated and dramatic and boasted a slew of wonderful performances by Rachel Camp, Alex Keiper, Jeff Coon, Rajeer Alford, Jim Hogan, Steve Pacek, and a dedicated chorus that aced all of its moments. (Well, except for some dancing. Whew!)

       Director Michael Philip O’Brien made the most of “Side Show’s” assets, finding the key human moments in Russell’s sketchpad of a book and keeping everything moving at a compelling pace. Handicapped as he was by not having a full production that could hide some of “Side Show’s” flaws, O’Brien was sensitive enough to find the right cords to engage the audience’s heart and theatrically savvy enough to keep all proceeding energetically and with purpose. The result was a rousing show that Camp and Keiper, as the Hiltons, contributed to make emotionally touching. If Russell provided only lines, as in outlines, not dialogue, O’Brien and company colored them in and made them substantial. By the time Camp and Keiper do the Hiltons’ 11th hour number, “I Will Never Leave You,” O’Brien and company have provided an exhilarating experience that shows why, in spite of my assessment of its flaws, “Side Show” should be produced and can entertain grandly. (A production starring Erin Davie and Emily Padgett in a re-worked version that features more characters, e.g. Harry Houdini, opens at D.C.’s Kennedy Center in June. It previously enjoyed a lauded run in La Jolla.)

      A concert version of the 1997 “Side Show,” has its advantages. The opening sequences, that depict Daisy and Violet in the freak show where vaudeville agents find them, have to be toned down a tad to compensate for the lack of costumes or set. With the chorus representing “freaks,” e.g. a bearded lady, a contortionist, an awkward looking lad, an alleged cannibal, etc., rather than playing them in full array, we get a taste of the Hiltons’ milieu and life without anyone being able to go overboard and give us a smorgasbord of the misshapen and grotesque. The economy actually helps the piece. It holds it as a human level and leads you to understand the underlying message that the individuals you’re seeing, including the Hiltons, who though conjoined are two women with two distinct personalities, are people above all, people with emotions and even ambitions. They are aware of their strangeness. Some are exploiting it. Others, given that “Side Show” takes place during the Depression see having steady work, even by exhibiting oneself as a “freak,” as a boon. Yet others are resigned to their lot and are grateful, in a different way, that the side show provides an place where they can be employed. In a full production, a director is faced with pretty much a dramatic imperative to go against one of “Side Show’s themes and emphasize weirdness and show biz pizazz before letting the characters show their better natures in the scenes when they’re not performing for the tent show crowd.

      The Hilton sisters know nothing but the side show. To them, being exhibited is their life. They are born conjoined in an age when, in spite of sharing no vital organs, surgical separation would mean likely death to one of both of them, and they are displayed for money almost from infancy. They regard the side show as their lot and, rightfully, consider the other “freaks” on the bill to be their friends. Harsh treatment and minimum accommodations by the side show owner, played with snide meanness by Pacek, is par for what the girls, on the brink of being women, see as their course.

      O’Brien’s cast suggests difference without having to show it. Even Michael Mastronardi’s bearded lady requires him only to put on a colorful shawl over his black chorus attire that looks like a waiter’s uniform to get into his side show character. Naturally, a full production of the musical has to make a greater show of Pacek’s touring carnival denizens. Russell and Krieger’s opening number is called “Look at the Freaks,” and the Hiltons, when offered the chance to work in vaudeville are warned to stay with  “The Devil You Know.” O’Brien though, makes the Hiltons’ environment clear without resorting to making his cast drool, distort their faces, or don turbans or teeth sharpened to points, to create his picture.

      He can proceed with the meat of the musical, the Hiltons’ success in vaudeville, the notoriety they attain as singers as well as women literally joined at the hip, and the effect all of it has on two separate but biologically united individuals who react differently to their circumstances and who want different thing from life. For example, if one of them wants to go to a party, and the other wants to go home, who prevails? If one enjoys stardom on whatever level it arrives, and the other craves a domestic life with husband and family, what is the outcome? If one marries and opts for children, how does that affect the other during the coitus required for conception or as she plays the de rigueur role of being the omnipresent aunt?

       Russell and Krieger provide the material and ammunition to explore these dilemmas that are more than incidental when they cannot be avoided by people who are precluded from disagreeing with a decision and going their own way. O’Brien and his cast add texture to pivotal scenes and make you care how each situation affects Daisy and Violet individually. Keiper’s array of telling facial expressions, and Camp’s tension beneath Violet’s gracious ease, elevate Russell’s story and give you information that lets you see the toll the sisters’ compulsory togetherness takes on each. Via O’Brien’s intelligent choices, and the performances of Camp, Keiper, and others, 11th Hour endows “Side Show” with more than the sum of its parts and overcomes some of Russell’s storytelling shorthand.

       “Side Show’s” second act contains the musical’s most dramatically intense moments. While the first uses the basic Broadway/Hollywood formula for chronicling an act’s rise from obscurity (or, in the Hiltons’ case worse than obscurity) to fame, the second tackles harder question about how to deal with that fame, how the sisters handle love, especially when one is about to be married and the other copes with an unrequited romance, how true public admiration does not eliminate curiosity or exploitation, and how no amount of fame or acknowledge of talent can erase the Hiltons being regarded on some level as freaks. Movie director Tod Browning’s appearance in the show underscores that last situation and takes the stars out of Daisy Hilton’s eyes.

       While all around Camp and Keiper do extraordinary work, from Rajeer Alford’s lovesick bodyguard to Jim Hogan’s regular-guy turn as Buddy, the assistant to the Hiltons’ manager, it is the lead actresses that take O’Brien’s “Side Show” from a theater curiosity to a gripping production. They are the ones who are not playing stock characters in a show biz saga that involves fame and garnering publicity. They are the ones to have to live each moment, including those, like Buddy’s proposal to Violet, the other can’t share and can’t react to in privacy.

       Both Camp and Keiper deserve high marks for their acting, singing, and working in tandem.

       There are a number of ways one can play Daisy and Violet as a combined duo. Camp and Keiper, no doubt with assistance from O’Brien, opt for peaceful co-existence. No one know either of the girls as well as her sister knows her. They haven’t been apart for one second of their existence. The only conceivable time they can spend alone is if one remains awake while the other is sleeping. One can’t think of escape of rebellion. They’re impossible.

        So, Violet and Daisy live in harmony. They can discuss their differences, but they remain empathetically and diplomatically unaminous even when it takes all of one’s fortitude to do so, e.g. Daisy on  Violet’s wedding day. She can joke that she’ll be by her sister’s side, to the left as always, as the maid of honor, but her hurt and pride are crushed. Keiper, as Daisy, has to play disappointment and be on a constant brink of tears while supporting her sister, the bride, and not spoiling her special day. It is a tribute to Keiper, as well as to O’Brien and Camp, how well the actress does in conveying the multiple thoughts and feelings that are going through her mind.

     In general, the Hiltons are in league. They smile or laugh at their differences because nothing much can be done about them. They discuss how one has to follow the other in given situations. For instance, when Daisy doesn’t feel well, Violet immediately agrees they should head home and rest. At one point when Violet and Daisy are having separate but equal simultaneous emotional stress, Daisy warns, “We have to calm down, or I’ll have a heart attack, and we’ll both die.” Serendipity is their lot, and the actresses play the Hiltons’ resignation to that fact in subtle but telling ways that work for them and the production. Conflict arises, but conflict cannot prevail because options for the sisters are limited and don’t include on going off on her own (as each understandably would like to on occasion).

       Keiper is a master of facial expression. You can read Daisy’s thoughts via her eyes and mouth. You can see when she’s elated or distressed. Even when she wants to hide a feeling from others in her midst, Keiper lets the audience where Daisy stands on everything.

       Daisy is the sister who revels in big-time vaudeville and the stardom and financial ease it secures. Her highs are expressed opposite Violet’s grateful and gracious but stoic acceptance of all that’s happened to her.

         Just as Keiper makes Daisy’s joy visible, she can’t help but show us Daisy at her saddest, loneliest, angriest, and most confused. Daisy is the sister given to extremes, and Keiper relays them all.

        Rachel Camp’s Violet is the calm sister, the girl-next-door, literally and as a character type.

        Violet is more relaxed is all situations. Though not as impressed as Daisy with their vaudeville success, she takes fame and its trappings in her stride. More emotionally mature than Daisy, and more conventional in her desires, Violet, as played by Camp, is more confident around men. She knows she has Jake, the freak show cannibal who becomes an assistant to the Hiltons’ agents, wrapped around her finger. All she has to do is smile and say, “For me, Jake, please,” and her will be done.

       Camp’s Violet reacts to attraction and love in a different way from Daisy. She is just as keen for affection and just as attracted when she meets the man she regards as the right one for her, but she is less demonstrative and keeps her emotions more to herself, even when Daisy goads her into admitting her feelings.

      Camp is more insular in her portrayal than Keiper. She will look content while seething inwardly. Keiper will show her pout and let you realize the depth of her emotions through her eyes.

       Both women are remarkable.

       As you realize, much must be done in synch, especially dance numbers, in which Camp and Keiper both show her mettle.

       Beyond being conjoined, the Hiltons make their name as singers. The vaudeville agent who hears them at the freak show recognizes their musical potential right away. It’s the reason he recruits them. He knows they can be more than just curiosities on the Orpheum circuit. He is aware they can entertain.

         Equally savvy, O’Brien directs Camp and Keiper to be good performers from the beginning. Their numbers, the ones they perform in presentation as vaudevillians and the ones that express their thoughts as characters, are all done to perfection, from the plaintive “Like Everybody Else” they sing before their discovery to the wondering “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” when they each realize they are interested in pursuing romantic relationships, to the rousing show closer, “I Will Never Leave You.”

       Camp and Keiper don’t realize “Side Show” alone, far from it, but their central roles, and the quality with they play them, keeps the 11th Hour production exciting and gives it a reality and a personal connection Russell’s book suggests but cannot fulfill without two marvelous performers to give Daisy and Violet substance words and stage directions cannot do on their own.

        Jeffrey Coon has made a firm and indelible mark in every production he’s graced this season. He has played a reporter who glories sarcastically in sensationalism but fights with sincerity for justice, a jaded prince who wants to avoid his parents’ dictum he find a wife and trades places with his valet to satisfy the folks but stay clear of fawning women, and a middle-aged man on a mission to learn the identity of his birth parents. “Side Show” gives Coon the opportunity to ace another role, and he seizes it.

       As Terry Connor, the man who see the Hilton Sisters and calculates their potential in vaudeville, Coon goes through a gamut of moods and attitudes. You see him as the shrewd businessman and patient coach in the patented on-our-way-up-in-show-business scenes, and you see him confused yet determined in scenes in which he knows he is in love with Daisy Hilton but doesn’t want to marry her. Besides not being the marrying kind, Terry cannot get over Daisy’s connection enough to offer more than fraternal love to her. He is a conventional man who wants options both to philander and to have an orderly life in which he doesn’t have to compensate for his wife’s unavoidable condition.

       Coon  uses his character’s trait as a tough, streetwise businessman to inform even the tenderer parts of his performance. The same shrewdness and upper-hand stubbornness he uses in negotiation forms a basis for how he reconciles his affection for Daisy with his resolve to reject her at all costs.

        As always, Coon sings with authority.  He brings the right bombast to “Overnight Sensation,” a number that approximates a press conference, he shows his suave but cautious side in “Private Conversation,” and gives a rundown of his intentions towards Daisy in “Tunnel of Love,” a song in which with the benefit of darkness and Violet’s attention being elsewhere, he may have consummated his intentions towards Daisy.

      In general, even when he’s playing a type, Coon is genuine. I know he is in “How to Succeed” at the Walnut. That gives him a month to pop up in another show. Keep your eye out for him.

        Jim Hogan makes Buddy, the musician that finds the Hiltons and introduces Terry to them, into a solid, everyday guy who may in show business but is a red-blooded American boy at heart, someone who likes the glamor of vaudeville but doesn’t let it get in the way of his demeanor or values.

        Hogan’s stolid ordinariness makes the affection Buddy shows more Violet all the more affecting.

         Rajeer Alford, for all of his size and the fierceness his character, Jake, must at times display, offers a sweet, affecting turn that makes you empathize with Jake and want him to have his the wish that is destined to elude him.

           Steve Pacek is alarming comfortable in the role of the side show owner who is not above beating or starving one of his performers into submission.

            O’Brien’s chorus was adroit at multiple roles. They are Melissa Joy Hart, Alina John, Matthew Mastronardi, Samantha Joy Pearlman, Evan Gallagher-Frace, Rob Tucker, and Matthew Mastronardi. Gallagher-Frace is the best dancer of the group, but in one scene in which the male chorus swayed against the far walls on the stage while the leads sang center stage, he was is in rhythm while his partner looked as if he was working freestyle.

          That’s about my only cavil, folks, some of the chorus dancing. Camp and Keiper, when they get the chance to hoof, are pretty good.

           Krieger and Russell’s score basically serves the show. Numbers are clever within themselves, but the song that would work best outside of “Side Show” is “You Should Be Loved,” which a forlorn Jake sings to a regretful Violet in an awkward moment when someone who loves Platonically learns he or she has been loved in earnest.

         “Side Show,” alas, has completed its three-day run at the Caplan Studio on the 16th floor of the University of the Arts’s Terra Center. Perhaps O’Brien will consider a full production at a more conducive time or a revival somewhere down the pike.

 

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