All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Side Show — Media Theatre

SIDE SHOW, Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa., through Sunday, March 2 — Before going into details, I have to say this is a production that will get better as its runs proceeds. Jesse Cline’s concept for the show, including placing it intimately on a stage where the audience is seated, is smart and laudatory. The director understands the material and how to present it. Speed and sparkle are what’s lacking, and both of them can be fixed as actors, several of whom are already where they need to be, will find pace and personality via performance and by letting the production breathe and further coalesce. Opening night was like a good late rehearsal, but you could see where tightening and more overt showmanship had to kick in.

There was much to savor, especially in the lead performances of Jenna Pastuszek and Ashley Sweetman as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, a ripe, ready turn by the always reliable Kelly Briggs, and a general display of esprit and choreographic elegance from newcomer Ronnie Keller, whose energy and brightness are keys to where the production has to go to reach the potential with which Cline has endowed it.

“Side Show” is a tricky piece. It has a good story, a strong story, a mostly true story, but one in which the chapters tend to have the same theme, a misfit, in the Hilton sisters’ case by an act of uncorrectable nature, yearning to be conventional or, in Daisy’s wish, glamorous, adventurous, and famous.

There is an innate sadness to the Hiltons’ plight because they go far given their inoperable peculiarity but never achieve the acceptance or approval they crave, Daisy having a appetite for the limelight, Violet dreaming of domestic normality with a home, husband, and children. Their difference, them being attached for life, always makes a difference and gets in the way.

There is also hope. The Hilton Sisters are talented singers whose attachment also allows them to dance, which they do with supple coordination. They are seen at a tawdry Texas side show by a sharp vaudeville booker who strives to get back into the major leagues after being put to pasture via a never-mentioned disgrace, and he knows he can make the sisters into stars. Yes, they will always be a novelty act, but as composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell demonstrate in their songs, they have the moxie and pizazz to transcend their liability and be as bravura as any sister act or song-and-dance attraction. They also have native intelligence and good manners, foisted of them perhaps by their English nanny, Auntie, and her husband, the side show owner, called Sir.

Krieger and Russell have written at two least numbers that can show the Hiltons’ mettle, “I Will Never Leave You,” an irony that has heart to go with its cynical wit, and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” a song that goes beyond its obvious point to express longing and the desire for romance that any young woman, or man, has when wondering if she, or he, will ever find the one on her mind, the one who is her ideal. Though they are specific to the Hiltons, both of these songs could be sung to effect in a general context outside of “Side Show,”

At the Media, these numbers show the plus and minus of presenting “Side Show” so intimately. The plus brings us back to Pastuszek and Sweetman, who are as symbiotic, copacetic, and finely attuned to each other as you imagine twins who have never spent a moment apart can be. They move silkily and without a hint of likely misstep in costumes sewn to meet at the hip. Their mutual gait flows with grace and ease, as two people practiced, even if by necessity, would do instinctively as it is their lot since birth and not something they would have to learn or compensate for because of an injury and other happenstance. Their musical harmony is as natural and delightful as their movements. Pastuszek and Sweetman seems so in tune with each other, you’d think Cline found them as a duo already dazzling with close harmony, complementary expression, and vocal flair.

The two make their big numbers moving and engaging.

But not riveting. And this is where I think the closeness impeded. Ironically because you’d think there would be more power when two performers are being so brilliant with feet of you.

Pastuszek and Sweetman make their mark, but Daisy and Violet don’t because distance is needed for extra drama. And to give them a chance to belt virulently without blowing the wigs off the folks in the first row.

“Side Show’s” book, also by Bill Russell, has several good and dramatic twists, but its repetitive. As I’ve said, everything that happens revolves around a common theme that becomes the basis for each scene, hurtful rejection being the usual outcome. One thing “Side Show” needs desperately is for its audience to see the Hiltons as vaudeville stars who take over a room like the Astaires or Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice, the latter two mentioned in Russell’s script. You need a production numbers as explosive and life-changing as “Let Me Entertain You” or “Rose’s Turn” are in “Gypsy.” You have to see the Hiltons, even if it wasn’t true in real life, take a stage as monumental talents and firecracker-like stars, too good to miss and leagues more interesting than their conjoined condition. Otherwise, they remain pitiful but never graduate to tragic as they must for “Side Show” to have its full effect. The audience has to empathize with Daisy and Violet, gasp and hurt with them when they’re being ignored, insulted with them when their chance to finally be in a movie consigns them only only to Tod Browning’s 1932 film, “Freaks.” We have to see their fate as more of a crime than a shame. At close quarters, even with some nifty dances by Dann Dunn — Watch that Keller kid in those. — and the undeniable luminescence of Pastuszek and Sweetman, the Hiltons always look as if they are small-time. They need more space to let their voices free and more elaborate numbers to show how well they danced though yoked to each other and dependent on each other’s perfect poise and timing.

Russell’s book tells us they are headliners and that they get reams of publicity. At Media, we see and hear the marvel, that transcendence of handicap that is so stirring and inspiring, but we don’t experience the magnitude and importance of its all. On a Broadway stage, size mattered. You could see the Hiltons were a first-rate act with all the pomp and excitement that goes with that. At Media, you love them as much, and admire their skill, but some scooch of thrill is gone. The girls’ act is good, when it needs to be boffo, Pastuszek and Sweetman radiating the same promise Daisy and Violet do.

Having Pastuszek and Sweetman singing so beautifully mere inches in front of you is a reward of sorts, one to be appreciated and savored, but it doesn’t put the Hiltons and their accomplishment into perspective. Russell’s story and our imaginations tells us what happened more than our seeing it take place.

Again, in a tiny space, Pastuszek and Sweetman don’t have to project much, so while their sound is lovely, it seems small. I kept wanting more drive, more oomph. From the production in general and not just the leads. Kelly Briggs, when he’s stage center, creates that sense of size that makes the well-conceived big top in which the Media audience sits into a larger, fuller world. Darnell Abraham, as Jake, a man who plays a savage cannibal in the Texas side show but who is really a gentle, contained soul who has deep affection for Violet and who protects the Hiltons from any danger, is another whose numbers achieve size that rattle the Media’s walls and expand the allotted space. This happens is his main production number, “The Devil You Know.” a fine sequence for the entire Media cast, and his part of the second-act group song, “Buddy’s Confession.” Briggs and Abraham know how to create power and grandeur in a confined space while others keep their performances small to match the surroundings. I often found myself silently muttering, “Sing our, Louise.” Briggs and Abraham prove bigger is better. They benefit from the intimacy while showing how to give theatrical magnitude to a compact setting.

Examples used to show where a production goes awry or can be improved often take over a review. Especially my reviews because I like to be detailed and use elements from a production to illustrate my point.

Too often, this gets construed of being negative while the intention is to be complete.

I point this out because I think, in general, Jesse Cline did a wonderful job with “Side Show” and had the right instinct to move it entirely, audience and all, to the stage. The added value from that move supersedes the downside of moments that might seem too small for their own good. (And that can grow.)

From the moment you enter the Media for “Side Show,” you feel the difference between it and other productions. You’re struck first by the empty rows of seats but then you notice posters than line the front of what is normally the stage and take in the billboards bruiting side show acts of many kinds. A circus atmosphere is established, one that continues as you proceed to your grandstand-like seats in what feels like a big top and continues the idea you are at a travelling carnival.

Rather than have characters roaming the stage in their grotesquery or tipping his hand in any way, Cline has Krieger’s overture play to a dark stage. Quite effectively and affectingly, you hear the side show performers before you see them.

The intro ends, and from both sides of the stage you hear a marvelous choral harmony. Voices blend beautifully. Any vocal ensemble would be proud of the purity of the sound the “Side Show” cast and Christopher Ertelt’s musicians create.

Then comes the irony, made stronger by having heard such sweet, angelic tones. A ragtag troupe that includes a geek, a bearded lady, a boy as hairy as a dog, a man with the dry, cracked skin of a lizard, a man with three legs, a tattooed woman, a fortune teller, a man who threads needles through his skin, a hermaphrodite groomed as a woman in one profile and a man in the other, an armless woman called Venus de Milo, and a fierce cannibal in chains emerge. It is they that have been producing these gorgeous tones. Looks can be deceiving. Splendor can be generated by the strange and deformed, those naturally so and those wearing makeup for the occasion. The Hilton Sisters, twins conjoined at the hip, are the pièce de resistance, the best singers, lovely in form as well as in voice, and not as noticeably or outlandishly freakish.

Of course, this being theater, you will learn that each of side show denizens, whether truly deformed or acting a part, is a great soul with a heart of gold. Russell doesn’t let even one have a temper, disposition, or shady side that is enhanced by his or her fierce looks. The geek, for instance, cleans up nicely and is a skillful baker who makes special cakes for his castmates on their birthdays. The cannibal, as noted, is the person who might have the deepest integrity and and most human sensibility in “Side Show.” Possibly because he’s not a cannibal but a guy who took an available job during the last century’s Great Depression.

The introductory song, “Come Look at the Freaks,” is both literal and full of commentary as Russell plays on human curiosity while labelling people who have mostly outward differences as “the other,” “freaks.” The characters live up the word, but from the outset, there is a sense this is shameful and not exactly an example of human mercy or kindness. But it the Depression, and the performers in the side show, run by Briggs’s Sir, are eating. A little. And have shelter. Even if they have to work 16 hours a day to earn it. They also form a kind of family, the Hilton sisters being Sir’s legal wards and quasi-stepdaughters.

There’s luster in the opening number. It’s here that you see size is possible to convey in a small space. You also see that some performers, even though part of a chorus rather than being in a sustained individual spotlight, find a way to give their characters some telling traits that, neatly but never unduly, grab your attention. Jennie Eisenhower, as the tattooed lady, Roger Ricker as Dog Boy, and Brian Michael Henry as the pansexual, do particularly good work in going beyond their makeup to show who is underneath. Henry will later create one of “Side Show’s” more arresting moments, appearing as Harry Houdini, who offers the Hilton encouragement in a flashback sequence, “All in the Mind.” In that sequence, Henry joins Briggs and Abraham in showing how to dominate nd bring concentrated attention to a small space. Susan Wefel also excels in the Flashbacks as the woman who adopts the Hiltons, cares for them, and first makes money by putting them on display.

The pace gets a little slower when “Side Show” goes into its main story, based largely on the actual life of the Hilton twins, who point out they are conjoined, not “Siamese,” a word that came into vogue because Thai brothers, Chang and Eng, were the first to find wide fame by being knit together.

As in “Side Show,” the Hiltons were brought from their native London to Texas and put on display with others. They were seen, and heard, by a vaudeville scout, who saw an opportunity in signing them for tours on the theatrical road. As would be expected, their novelty and their talent earned them attention and ink.

“Side Show” explores the reality of being different and the wish to be more similar to the general public or different for something more outstanding that an act of natal biology, two embryonic beings in one egg not separating as nature usually makes happen.

Russell, Krieger, and Cline bring out the issues involved. Russell and Krieger even have some fun pointing out the dark humor in Daisy and Violet’s plight, such as in the number, “Stuck With You.”

Dreams, Daisy’s to be a bona fide movie star but of the Olivia de Havilland stamp, not as one of Browning’s freaks, Violet’s to settle somewhere and have a family, especially since she tends to be popular and win people’s earnest affection, are addressed, but none to the point of depth. That is a problem that has kept “Side Show” from being a rousing hit in spite of two acclaimed Broadway runs and two decent local productions, this by Media and a 2014 concert version by 11th Hour. You know what the Hiltons, and others, want, but Russell never really invests you in it.

Cline makes up for some of that. One way in which his intimate production helps is by making you listen more to Daisy and Violet’s ambitions, seeing them fall in love for instance, but Russell’s book remains broad and brings up points more than delving into them.

Cline’s production keeps you interested and wanting to know more (some of which can be learned by looking at Hilton Sisters performances on YouTube, where you see Daisy as having movie star charisma and Violet, though a good singer and dancer, less able to muster enthusiasm or verve Daisy does).

Cline’s is a fine rendition of a curio that may not ever earn popular acclaim but is a critic’s and musical aficionado’s darling. As I said, I expect Cline’s production to grow stronger and become more compelling as it runs, some of the book scenes find their pace, and the musical numbers become bigger.

Jenna Pastuszek and Ashley Sweetman are terrific. They certainly exude the closeness of sisters. Even their arguments are muted to presereve the peace in takes to enough internal organs and epidermis to be linked forever. Pastuszek conveys Daisy’s love of the limelight and craving for attention. She also uses her face and body well when she is asked how she will manage when the engaged Violet is married and having sex. Though vibrant enough in performance sequences, Sweetman shows Violet’s preference for being more retiring and less interested in a show business career than her sister. She plays her longing for her choreographer, Buddy, well and does a good job, kind but firm, when she must rebuff the affection of Jake, who has loved her for years and would make a better husband than Buddy, who loves Violet but has eyes, and more of a yen, for guys. (Though prejudice isnever mentioned, the part of Jake is written for a black performer and could have something to do with Violet regarding Jake as a “brother” and not as one she could consider as a romantic partner.)

Bob Stineman does a fine job as Terry, the scout that finds the Hiltons and brings them to the Orpheum circuit, redeeming him for something never explained but seems to involve play8ing around with the wrong woman. Stineman plays Terry as being all business. He may love Daisy, but he is not willing to act on any emotion while she is conjoined. Stineman manages the aloofness necessary to keep Daisy hoping while maintaining his distance with aplomb. He takes the risk you might not like Terry, and the risk pays. Derek Basthemer is also adept at playing Buddy’s wishy-washiness, especially when it comes to being true to Violet while having regular sex with a dancer from the Hilton entourage, played by Keller.

Ronnie Keller grabs focus in dance numbers. His moves are smoother, more agile, and more elegant than the other dancers who don’t quite achieve the same coordination or panache. I don’t want to imply the other dancers don’t execute Dunn’s choreography well, only that Keller lets you see the full dance and fleshes out his steps and motions in ways that make his numbers more exciting.

Krieger’s music smacks of the ’90s, when “Side Show” was first produced. You especially hear this is “Come Look at the Freaks” and “Say Goodbye to the Side Show.” The score is often a dramatic staccato, but is capable of going to some lovely melodies, as is Daisy and Violet’s musical introduction and in the two major songs, “I Will Never Leave You” and “Who Will Take Me As I Am?”

Russell’s book covers a lot of ground, sometimes at the expense of exploring areas that cry for more attention while giving factual information about the Hiltons too much shrift. One of the better moments comes when Tod Browning offers the Hiltons a role in his movie, only for the girls to learn the movie is called “Freaks” and they are to be examples of the title. Pastuszek’s reaction to this news as Daisy is particularly strong, saying volumes that resonate loudly while Daisy puts practicality ahead of emotion and announces she’s is favor of leaving vaudeville to go with Browning.

Matthew Miller’s set creates the tone and atmosphere Cline calls for. Troy Martin O’Shea’s lighting enhances some important moments, especially in shadow and in the fantasy sequence in which the Hiltons are free of each other.

Grade: B+


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