Playing opposite The Lion King, even at the redoubtable Kennedy Center in Washington DC, is a tough place to be – unsurprisingly, Side Show has had less publicity than the Disney number and is running in the smaller chamber. All of this is a real shame considering the brilliance of the production, which tells the tale of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, stars in the 1932 exploitation movie Freaks.
Without revealing too much of the tale, the Hilton sisters – performers at the eponymous side show – are talented singers with a desire to live normal lives. Poorly treated by their master who shows off their bodies for those with a ‘scientific interest’, the arrival of a talent scout and a voice coach gives them an opportunity for a better life. Successful in freeing themselves from the abusive master, they join vaudeville and gain fortune and fame – and yet the sisters are unable to escape each other.
The romance which the major characters end up embroiled in is not the most unique plotline, but its resolution is powerful and reminds us that this is based on a true story. Unlike Freaks, a movie which ended the career of director Tod Browning with its controversial images of side show performers, Side Show is keenly on the side of those demonised and mocked by society.
Side Show doesn’t give in to a narrative of grotesque, deformed and stupid victims, to be wondered at and feared, as its source material attempted to do. Violet and Daisy, when asked “Whatever you are, don’t you wish you were normal?” respond quite frankly “Whoever you are, don’t you wish you were?”
Side Show’s power stems from its ability to walk the thin line between tear-jerking despair at the fate of the twins, slapstick humour at the expense of the various performers, and saccharine, twee feel-good happiness. The show is self-conscious in its humour, lightly but persistently chiding the image of ‘all’s well that ends well’ which could just have easily marred the conclusion. There is a bit of the classic musical schmaltz, but undercut by an awareness of the illusory, transitory nature of fame which the twins garner.
More interesting than the romantic subplots – which, in their defence, dredge up some interesting questions – are the rather different dreams to which the twins subscribe. Daisy, precocious, flirtatious and more rebellious, has aspirations to the big time, money, and glamour. Her sister is far quieter and less confident, desiring simply stability, husband and a happy home. At their core, both want what everyone wants – to be normal – and yet living bound together, privacy is denied from them except from in their own minds. Forced to choose between each other and freedom at the close of the play, the dilemma which underlies so much of the tension comes to a head.
The musical numbers alternate between late 20s glitz and pomp; more private, reflective pieces between the twins and their lovers; and the loud, brash and yet wonderfully moving images of the freak show. Cast-wise there are few flaws, but the understated star of the performance is David St. Louis as Jake. His heart-felt song to Violet is one of the most moving parts of a musical which refuses to wallow in the condition of the characters.
Although coming to the end of its run here in DC next week, rumours are that Side Show might make it to Broadway. If you do get the chance to see this magnificent work, take it – yet another viewing of The Lion King can wait.
PHOTO/Side Show publicity