Theater Review: Carnivalesque Musical Sidesteps Freakshow With Magnificent Voices

Before Side Show begins at Pfamily Arts in Plano, the audience is faced with large-scale vintage-style carnival posters advertising the attractions: the Bearded Lady, the chicken-mauling Geek, the Cannibal King. Adding sound effects—a barker luring potential customers, or perhaps an organ lilting a carefree tune—would have further established the atmosphere of a 1930’s traveling carnival. This neglected opportunity is perhaps the only misstep in an otherwise stunning production of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s 1997 cult musical, for once the cast members assemble on the set’s bleachers to sing the opening number “Come Look at the Freaks,” the audience is in for a roller coaster ride.

The true story of Violet and Daisy Hilton, sisters literally joined at the hip who were born in England at the turn of the century, is a fascinating one, but until Krieger and Russell loosely developed their tale into a musical few people in the modern era knew who they were. The musical played briefly on Broadway, but the unfamiliar subject matter and potential for grotesqueness kept audiences largely at bay. Of course, this was long before TLC struck gold with shows such as “Abby & Brittany” (about conjoined twins), “Little People, Big World” (about a family with dwarfism), and “The 650 Lb. Virgin” (I think you can get that one on your own).

The Hilton sisters begin the musical as teenaged freak show acts before being whisked away by talent scout Terry and performer Buddy. Elevated from carnival poverty to vaudeville stardom practically overnight, the girls juggle their newfound fame with the burgeoning feelings they have for their rescuers. They also, quite poignantly, discover the uncomfortable realities of their biological situation and the world’s true interest in their “talents.”

The Side Show that Pfamily Arts presents doesn’t dwell on the bizarre; instead, it wisely showcases the magnificent voices of its strong cast. From company-led numbers such as “The Devil You Know” and the aforementioned “Freaks” to more intimate songs like “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “You Should Be Loved,” the cast uniformly displays a confidence of sound and passion of performance. “Leave Me Alone,” an acidly funny duet demonstrating the girls’ at-times frustrating situation, is especially strong.

Thomas E. Cunningham, a former national tour Phantom of the Opera, is gleefully terrifying as the sideshow’s drunken, manipulative boss. He has plenty of opportunity to showcase his soaring tenor, and the unpredictable layer to his acting keeps the tension running high. On the other hand, Sam Beasley is adorable as the keen song-and-dance man—and later Hilton sister groom—Buddy Foster. His eager-beaver charm and enthusiastic delivery of both songs and scenes is endearing without veering into annoying.

Unfortunately, Greg Hullett pales in comparison to both Cunningham and Beasley. He’s not nearly slick or impassioned enough as Terry Connor, the sisters’ business manager and Daisy’s dream man. His big solo, “Private Conversation,” is musically solid but lacks any sense of direction. With the rest of the cast so invested in this haunting world, his lightweight performance sticks out painfully.

And what about the twins? As Daisy and Violet, Mallory Michaellann and Jad Saxton are committed to presenting a united front with distinctively individual performances. As in the original production, there are no tricks used to keep the girls connected. The actresses simply stand, sit, walk, and dance while pressed side by side, appearing to effortlessly maintain the link. Michaellann coaxes out Daisy’s vivacious nature while Saxton plays up Violet’s cautious prissiness, and their voices blend together beautifully.

Director William R. Park, an understudy for the role of Buddy in the original Broadway workshop of Side Show, clearly has a deep connection with the material. That profound fervor is reflected in his cast, who truly seem to understand the show’s central theme:  We all feel like freaks sometimes.

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