Chicago Theater Review: SIDE SHOW (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 19, 2015

in Uncategorized

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: SIDE SHOW (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

YOKED ASUNDER

Front Row (L to R) John Marshall, Jr, Colleen Fee, Britt-Marie Sivertsen and Colin Funk Back Row (L to R) Jeremy Sokin and Dan Gold Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.  Don’t believe the ironic title of a first-act song: Daisy and Violet Hilton were not your “Typical Girls Next Door.” Conjoined (or “Siamese” twins), they were, grotesquely enough, literally born into showbiz–as “freaks” of nature and entertainment. Discarded by their freaked-out mother, the “well-connected” girls were exploited in their native England by a midwife who became an evil surrogate parent, then reduced to a sideshow sensation by “Sir,” their self-appointed dad. Like John Merrick’s “Elephant Man” or Kafka’s “hunger artist,” their lives were unavoidably exposed, as public as a barker’s promises. So it’s oddly fitting that show business still can’t “quit” them, as Porchlight Music Theatre’s provocative and powerful revival proves over 150 minutes.

Evan Tyrone Martin and Veronica Garza in Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.

According to the 1997 musical Side Show, newly revised in 2014 to incorporate new revelations about the Hiltons (like the crucial fact that they chose not to be divided), the ladies, born in 1908, lurched from the circus to vaudeville to movies. Side Show strategically focuses on two seminal years in the Hilton sisters’ saga. Moving to San Antonio, Texas to perform in Wortham’s “World’s Greatest Show,” they were recruited in 1930 by entrepreneur Terry Connor into a gig on the Orpheum Circuit. There the girls appeared at the Palace Theatre with the likes of Bob Hope, Jack Benny and, seen here, Harry Houdini.

Colleen Fee and Britt-Marie Sivertsen in Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.The strange siblings finally made it, notoriously, to their last “big time”–the silver screen: Among other physical oddities (like the “pinhead” dwarfs), in 1931 Daisy and Violet were featured in Todd Browning’s controversial Freaks, today a cult MGM classic of passive-aggressive cinematic manipulation. Their Hollywood debut gives the musical a strangely triumphant finale, as conditional as the audience chooses to take it.

Ironically, at the peak of their career the exploitation the Hilton sisters endured was no different from the original sordid British carnival: It was just wider, greater and a tad more glamorous. Given the era, it’s not surprising: If anatomy is destiny, Daisy and Violet could hardly evolve beyond a separation that never happened. Their “double jeopardy” dogged them to the end.

Colleen Fee and Britt-Marie Sivertsen in Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.Properly, the emphasis on the musical, its book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, is on the secret, personal stuff that tested and confirmed their sisterly solidarity–specifically the necessarily thwarted love lives that both divided and conquered the Hiltons.

Three men were drawn to them out of pity, chivalry or even passion. The first two, prominently linked to the Hiltons, were their manager Terry Connor, who couldn’t commit to actually marrying Daisy–and Buddy Foster, their closeted director Buddy whose tabloid “p.r.” wedding to Violet occurred at the Texas Centennial Fairgrounds during the Cotton Bowl. Finally and secretly, there was always Jake, their gallant African-American protector who ruefully realized he was just as marginalized as homosexual Buddy.

Matthew Keffer, Colleen Fee, Britt-Marie Sivertsen and Devin DeSantis in Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.

So Side Show isn’t just about the “joined at the hip” Hiltons: We encounter Depression-era “outcasts” of all persuasions, trapped in their own “separate and unequal” metaphorical side show. By the end, when Violet and Daisy belt out the seemingly obvious duet, “I Will Never Leave You,” we know the price they paid for daring to deserve love and dreaming of individual lives. The first act finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” applies to many more dreamers than the Hiltons.

The cast of Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.

Director Michael Weber found the correct folks with the right stuff to drive home this bittersweet success story. Colleen Fee and Britt-Marie Sivertsen turn resemblance into reality, their divergent differences as palpable as their non-negotiable double body. Their duets, “Like Everyone Else” and the vaudevillian “Stuck With You,” sardonically testify to the Hiltons’ lifelong clash between wishes and facts–and a bond they refused to break when they finally could.

The cast of Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.

Matthew Keffer’s Terry is a picture of hapless ineffectuality, too controlled for his own happiness. Devan DeSantis’ conflicted Buddy is likewise t0rn apart by good intentions. Evan Tyrone Martin’s sensuous Jake never seems nobler than in “You Should Be Loved,” his anguished duet with Violet. Matthias Austin exudes venality as “Sir,” whose anthem “Come Look at the Freaks” applies to himself most of all.

Colleen Fee, Britt-Marie Sivertsen and Evan Tyrone Martin in Porchlight Music Theatre’s SIDE SHOW. Photo by Anthony Robert Lapenna.

Finally, Weber’s wizard cast double and triple in spades as, among other attractions, a geek, tattoo girl, bearded lady, fortune teller, dog boy, human pin cushion, lizard man, half-man/half-woman, armless Venus de Milo, Cossack, roustabout, and many more odd persons out. Like the show, Ross Hoppe’s period projections literally put the past center stage. We are “sidelined” too.

photos by Anthony Robert LaPenna

Side Show
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
ends on October 25, 2015
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

Leave a Comment