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Siamese Dream

Side Show's a Stylish, Toe-tapping Tale of Joined-at-the-Hip Heroines

Me and My Shadow: Lauren Williams (left) and Melanie Hopkins star in Side Show at the Maryland Arts Festival.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/27/2001

Side Show

Book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger

Come look at the freaks / come gape at the geeks," invites Side Show's opening number, which transports viewers to a grimy circus side show, circa-1930. No, this isn't the sort of boy-meets-girl musical-theater romp the Gershwin brothers might have dreamed up. Side Show's unique fiction is based on fact: the show-biz lives of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins (Siamese twins, in old-school parlance) who escaped an exploitative exhibitor to enjoy a brief run of theatrical fame during the Depression. And so our leading ladies here are literally joined at the hip, rendering every romantic entanglement a boy-meets-girls affair.

But while playwright Bill Russell explores what it means to be a "freak," he does so with a light hand. He avoids traipsing through any of the truly dark ways such a deformity might play itself out--this isn't an all-singing, all-dancing version of The Elephant Man. While Side Show's unique setup might have put viewers off back in '98 (when it tanked on Broadway, despite largely good press), the freakiest thing about this show is how gentle and joyful it often is. These attributes are only emphasized in this Maryland Arts Festival production, directed and choreographed by Tom Kosis, which strikes a comfortable balance between Broadway bluster and small-stage intimacy.

As the show begins, Violet and Daisy Hilton (played, respectively, by Lauren Williams and Melanie Hopkins, who simulate their physical bond simply by pressing their hips together) are living with a bearded lady, a "reptile man," and other stock carnival folks. Enter striving musician Buddy Foster (Tom Burke) and theatrical scout Terry Connor (Stephen Antonsen), who, though they know it's a gamble, invite the ladies to leave the tent and take the stage. With a little polish, the pair is soon entertaining with aplomb. One example is "We Share Everything," a Busby Berkeley-esque bit of razzle with a campy Egyptian theme. (Williams and Hopkins deftly manage to dance, er, "cheek-to-cheek.")

Though the twins are of one body, their minds are far apart--Violet is looking for love, Daisy is out for fame. But as the old saying warns, "Be careful what you wish for." The increasingly shallow Buddy is soon wooing Violet, though his motives are murky (even to himself). Terry, meanwhile, awkwardly fights his growing affection for Daisy. And soon everyone is battling a rowdy press corps for a moment of privacy. Things come to a truth-telling head in the evocative number "Tunnel of Love," where the members of the quartet reveal their true feelings during an intimate moment aboard a carnival ride. Though Russell pulls his punches in exploring how the sexual/emotional dynamics of such a foursome might play out, he leaves you with plenty to contemplate. Suffice it to say, the big wedding the Hiltons are heading into may not be the magic moment--or major media event--it's set up to be.

To their credit, Williams and Hopkins manage to overcome their different physical proportions and vocal abilities (Williams has by far the better pipes) to give convincing life to Violet and Daisy. They are simply fascinating to watch. Burke's voice might be the ensemble's weakest link, but his Buddy is convincingly skulky and weak-willed, while Antonsen tends to overplay his character's aloofness.

One of the most watchable and listenable performers is David "King" Hinton, who plays the sisters' friend Jake. His deep voice adds punch to the R&B-tinged "The Devil You Know," and compassion to the souring "You Should Be Loved." Though he played a ferocious "cannibal" in the side show, in truth he is a gentle suitor for Violet's affection. His black skin, however, makes him an outcast of another sort in 1930s America.

Production numbers range from the elaborate ("Tunnel of Love," which cleverly uses a revolving stage, spotlights, and smoke) to the simple ("One Plus One Equals Three," whose main prop is a humble blackboard). A large, competent pit orchestra provides the music, a welcome change in an age when even major touring shows rely largely on synthesizers. Henry Krieger's score is pleasingly diverse, frequently referencing the 1930s without being a hidebound period work.

Though far from perfect, Side Show walks a pleasing line between the conventional and the controversial. That makes it something wonderfully freakish in its own right.

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