Until recent decades, much of American popular entertainment was anything but politically correct. Consider the minstrel show, the burlesque house and the vaudeville stage. And then there was the sideshow — that “added attraction”of mainstream circuses and carnivals — the voyeuristic “freak show,” an exhibition of “human oddities,” including “born freaks” such as midgets, giants and the deformed, or “made freaks” like the heavily tattooed, and fat ladies and skeletal men.
Now, at a time when one of the more popular mottos on Broadway is “let your freak flag fly,” the outcasts of society have not only become the main attractions, but the heroes and heroines. A prime example of such a story is “Side Show,” the musical by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) that is based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who grew up in London and became famous stage performers in this country in the 1930s.
When: Through Oct. 18
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $39 – $45
Info: (773) 327-5252; www.porchlightmusictheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes
When we first meet the beautiful, engaging Hilton sisters — flirtatious, ambitious Daisy (Colleen Fee), and romantic, intensely private Violet (Britt-Marie Sivertsen), they are being controlled by their greedy guardian, Sir (Matthias Austin), and are part of a gritty but protective “family” of hard-working and exploited “freaks” that includes: The Human Pin Cushion (Johnson Brock), the Bearded Lady (Amanda Hartley), The Geek (Ben Kaye), The Tattoo Girl (Courtney Mack), The Three-Legged Man (John Marshall Jr.), The Half-Man/Half-Woman (Deanna Meyers), the armless Venus di Milo (Kristen Noonan), The Cossack (Ben Saylor) and The Lizard Man (Jeremy Sonkin). Serving as the Hiltons’ passionately devoted chaperone is Jake (the galvanic, golden-voiced Evan Tyrone Martin), a black man whose skin color renders him a different sort of outsider.
Though joined at the hip, and ideally coordinated physically, Daisy and Violet are strong individual personalities who, above all, want to be “like everyone else,” though they fear the results of any surgical procedure that might separate (or kill) them. When they are “rescued” from the side show and transformed into vaudeville stars by Terry Connor (Matthew Keffer), a previously ne’er-do-well producer, and Buddy Foster (Devin DeSantis), a performer/coach and closeted homosexual, things begin to change. And Buddy’s marriage proposal to Violet only heightens the drama, for once love enters the picture for the twins, the possibility of finding a “private room” in their minds — as Harry Houdini (Colin Funk), once suggested they could — just doesn’t quite work.
Fee and Sivertsen are not only ideally matched physically (with winningly different faces), but they ideally capture their characters’ opposite personalities even as their silvery voices blend beautifully. I wish they appeared a little more “attached,” but the imagination is all here, and Bill Morey’s costumes could not be more glamorous throughout.
Designer Megan Truscott’s all-encompassing sideshow-meets-vaudeville-and-Hollywood set (with archival projections by Ross Hoppe and lighting by Greg Freeman) ideally sets the mood, with essential work by Kevin Barthel (wigs) and Kimberly Morris (make-up). And musicians Adam DeGroot, Charles Russell Roberts, Elena Spiegel, Ben Dillinger and Tony Scandora capture the soaring ache in this show that asks: Who will ever love me as I am?