A lucky handful of commercially-produced shows become flat-out hits that run for decades. Yet more than often, most shows buckle under the pressures of modern commercial theatre and are sadly forgotten. And then there are shows like Side Show -- a show that struggled and quickly folded when first produced on Broadway in 1997. But then something unique happened -- a core and ardent fan base emerged at the tail end of the show's lifespan, which grew over time thanks to a cast album that featured the powerhouse, Tony-nominated performances of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Since then, the show has enjoyed many regional productions, including a recent Broadway revival (more on that later).
Back in '97, many felt the show didn't find an audience simply due to the subject matter, which is loosely based on the lives of the Hilton sisters who grew up as a side show centerpiece in the '30s, and then catapulted to mainstream attention on the vaudeville circuit through a series of talent agents with questionable motives.
Side Show explores the human side of the sisters, including a heartbreaking love story. In fact, a quick Wikipedia search notes that the sister's lives are even more heartbreaking than the musical suggests, with their manager ultimately abandoning them at a drive-in movie theatre, forcing them to work at a nearby grocery story and then dying from the flu.
Sure - the material isn't pleasant. But the musical powerfully underscores the important notion that underneath the surface, we are all humans, looking for love and acceptance. And what's a more beautiful and powerful message than that?
Porchlight's wholly professional production leverages the re-write of the musical, which was revived on Broadway in 2014 to critical acclaim, but, yet again, ultimate financial loss. Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) refocused this version of the show to smartly explore the Hilton sister's backstory, including a vignette highlighting how the sisters, from birth, were treated as a commodity and raised by managers with dollar signs in their eyes. It's not until Buddy and Terry, two talent scouts, happen upon the sisters and fight for their freedom from the side show, that Daisy and Violet get a sense of real human compassion -- and romantic heartbreak.
As the sisters, Colleen Fee (Daisy) and Britt-Marie Sivertsen (Violet) make a startling impression. Of any musical in recent history, these roles are probably the hardest to cast -- not only due to the actresses needing to be similar in height and looks, but they must also possess the vocal chops to navigate Krieger's rangy, balled-heavy score (excellent music direction by Aaron Benham). Director Michael Weber has found an ideal pairing, with Fee being a real firecracker of a talent whom we'll certainly see more of in the Chicago scene.
As Buddy and Terry, Devin Desantis and Matthew Keffer offer strong counterparts to the sisters. Desantis in particular balances the tricky task of making us root for him while also seeing how his innate need to people please ultimately ends in heartbreak. As fellow sideshow performer Jake, Evan Tyrone Martin provides a stunning explosion of fury in the second act when his true feelings for Daisy boil over.
However, much like another Henry Krieger musical, Dreamgirls (which Porchlight is also producing this season) Side Show is a show about show business. And as the sisters tearfully declare in their second act anthem, "Evermore and always, we'll be one though we're two -- for I will never leave you." Indeed, the side show must go on.
"Side Show" plays through October 25 at Stage 773. More info here >