Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As soon as it closed, there were rumors that Side Show would re-open, especially after it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. That failed to happen. Still, thanks to its original cast recording and numerous regional productions, Side Show continued to build its fan base. In 2013, Bill Condon spearheaded a revival with his own revisions to the show's book. Condon was primarily known as a film director and screenwriter with solid musical experience that included the screenplay for the movie Chicago and both screenplay and direction of Dreamgirls. He directed his revised Side Show at La Jolla Playhouse in 2013, and then at the Kennedy Center in spring 2014. That production drew praise and moved, intact, to Broadway in fall 2014. It garnered strong reviews but was not able to find an audience, lasting just 56 performances.
Chameleon Theater Circle, the plucky company based at the Ames Center in Burnsville, uses Bill Condon's version for their current production of Side Show. It begins at a side show in Texas, where Daisy and Violet sing and dance, and are virtual prisoners of its tyrannical boss, called Sir. Their fellow "exhibits" include a variety of what were then called freaks, such as a lizard man, a bearded woman, a three-legged man, and a wild African cannibal. Enter Terry Conner, a talent scout trying to recover his reputation after bad dealings, and Buddy Murphy, a performer-director whose job is to shape the talent Terry discovers into an act fit for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. They pull the Hilton sisters away from Sir's brutal control and coach them into a winning song and dance act. The girls develop romantic feelings for their rescuers; the brash, fame-seeking Daisy toward Terry and the more reserved, domestic-minded Violet toward Buddy. The men each respond to those feelings in a different way. In due time a wedding is afoot. This is a dream come true for the bride and a publicity bonanza for the act.
Condon jettisoned some material, while adding a flashback sequence showing the twin's birth to an English unwed mother, their fall into Sir's clutches, and their lawsuit to emancipate themselves from Sir's legal guardianship. He also depicts Daisy and Violet's meeting with the great escapist Harry Houdini (something that really happened) who counsels them on escaping into their minds in order to have private, even sexual lives. Condon embeds clear hints that Buddy's lack of a physical response to Violet is not an aversion to her sister's constant, looming presence, but that he is a closeted gay man. Finally, Condon added a new ending that takes us past the ballyhoo of a staged wedding to reveal what lies ahead for Daisy and Violet. While Terry and Buddy are fictional compilations of men who played a part in the Hilton's lives, Condon's new material is based on actual events in the sister's lives, massaged for the stage, and offers a broader understanding of how they endured such profound challenges.
Though Side Show is a small-scale musical, it requires extreme care. Chameleon has done many things right, including the casting of the four lead characters. Julia Ennen captures Daisy's spunk and wit, Anna Larranaga projects Violet's fears and longing, and both sing beautifully. They especially do justice to their shared and very smart "I want song," "Like Every One Else" and two beautiful ballads that have earned this score its rabid fans, the first act closer "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and the 11 o'clock number "I Will Never Leave You." Most critical, they create two very separate women while maintaining awareness of how each one is totally constrained by the other. Jeremy Johnson is spot on as Terry, charming with a hint of deceit below the surface, and brings a smooth voice to the flim-flam "Very Well Connected" and the soul-searching "A Private Conversation." Logan Bitz Daum brings sincerity to Buddy, enabling us to understand the pain that accompanies his life.
John Goodrich is quite good as Sir, believable in his self-righteous cruelty to the sisters. Peyton Dixon brings the needed gravitas to Jake, but is not quite up to the vocal demands of his two big numbers. Mike Tober lacks the depth one expects of Houdini, making his impact on Daisy and Violet unconvincing. Dixon, Tober, and most of the ensemble double as side show cast members, doing a good job of displaying their respective oddities, while adding choral power to the lush score, with credit also going to vocal director Brody Meinke.
Director Avian Jangula keeps the show moving swiftly and the narrative in focus, no easy task given the complexity brought on by Condon's book additions. The spare set is limited to a set of stairs leading to a draped portal framed by an arch decorated with side show posters. Mariah Lamkin's costumes are right for the era and the gaudiness of side show life. Daisy and Violet's costumes make them look juvenile while under Sir's heel, and become increasing glamorous as they set off on their own and attain a level of celebrity. Aaron Bush's excellent lighting design includes clever use of back-lit silhouettes.
Side Show does not call for a lot of dance (Condon cut the splashiest number from the original, "We Share Everything"), but it is critical that the Hiltons' performance spots impress enough to make their rise from side show to the top of the show biz ladder believable. The first three of those fail to take off, pleasant enough routines, but not the stuff of a star act. Happily, they hit the mark in "One Plus One Equals Three," a number performed with Buddy and an awkwardly inserted Ray, the dancer Buddy has his eye on. Shannon Townsend provides the modest choreography.
The eight-member orchestra, under Tamara Henschel's direction, plays well but lacks strings, which would have enriched Henry Krieger's moody score. The brassy sound is well suited to Catch Me If You Can, the musical Chameleon mounted last spring, but not quite right for Side Show, where music is used to express the story's complex and conflicting emotions.
I will own up to having been a huge fan of Side Show without having ever seen it, based on its cast recording and its history, and entered the Ames Center with great anticipation. I was not disappointed with the play. The music really is gorgeous, the story transporting and inescapably moving. I give Chameleon Theatre Circle high marks for this production's taut direction, excellence in casting the lead roles, beautiful ensemble choral, and most of all, for their ambition in giving more Twin Cities theatergoers the opportunity to discover this most worthy work of musical theater.
Side Show, produced by Chameleon Theatre Circle, continues at the Ames Center's Black Box Theater through April 23, 2017. 12600 Nicollet Avenue South, Burnsville, MN. Tickets are $22.00, $19.00 for seniors, students and Minnesota Fringe Button Holders. For tickets call 952-895-4680 or go to www.chameleontheatre.org.
Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell; Music: Henry Krieger; Additional Book Material: Bill Condon; Director: Avian Jangula; Music Director: Tamara Henschel; Vocal Director: Brody Meinke; Choreographer: Shannon Townsend; Costume Design: Mariah Lamkin; Lighting Design: Aaron Busch; Sound Design: Forest Godfrey; Makeup Design: Richard William Kopf; Prop Design: Mark Steffer; Stage Manager: Chris Engelhard; Technical Director: Andi Billig; Producers: Andrew Troth and Jim Vogel.
Cast: Anna Christy (Fortune Teller/Ensemble), Kayla Coffland (Geek/Ensemble), Logan Bitz Daum (Buddy Foster), Peyton Dixon (Jake), Julia Ennen (Daisy Hilton), Jakob Gomez (Ray/Lizard Man / Ensemble), John Goodrich (Sir), Marisa Jacobus (Tattooed Girl/Ensemble), Katie Jensen (Bearded Lady/Auntie/Ensemble), Jeremy Johnson (Terry Connor), Richard William Kopf (Tod Browning/ Roustabout/Ensemble), Anna Larranaga (Violet Hilton), Josiah Rice (Roustabout/Ensemble), Mike Tober (3-Legged Man/Houdini/Ensemble), Chris Unger (Half and Half/Ensemble).