That's Showbiz

There's much to like about Arizona Rep's flawed 'Sideshow'--but where's the orchestra?

The bearded lady's face isn't the only thing that's a little too warm and fuzzy about Sideshow, the 1997 musical about conjoined twins who graduated from freak-show status to become vaudeville sensations in the 1930s. For a production peopled with physically abnormal characters, a menacing carnival boss and "rescuers" of ambiguous sincerity, Sideshow is awfully soft-hearted.

Writer Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) concocted a showbiz tale that tries harder to inspire affection than discomfort. As a result, Arizona Repertory Theatre's earnest and accomplished production will appeal to the crowd for whom even Carousel is a bit too dark. This exploration of the twins' inner lives is as conventional as a TV chat with Charlie Rose; what the story really needs is the twisted punk brutality of Jim Rose.

Anachronistic, you cry? Well, Krieger himself does little to evoke the story's Depression-era setting, save for a few musical gestures in the twins' show-within-a-show production numbers. The score is generic modern-pop-musical fodder, adept enough to hold your interest through the individual songs but not at all memorable. This is not to suggest an absence of craft, though; in the first act, for example, a scene in which the full company is gradually deployed in an argument over the twins' departure from the freak show is a masterly crescendo of layered musical lines.

The first act is standard rags-to-riches stuff, in which conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are discovered at a freak show by vaudeville operators Terry Connor and Buddy Foster; the young men whisk the girls off to the more-legitimate stage, and each develops a flirtation with one of the twins. The second act is more interesting, as the men reluctantly evaluate the honesty of their feelings for the twins and consider the absolute lack of privacy in a relationship with a woman literally joined at the hip to her sister. Meanwhile, Jake, who quit his "Cannibal King" freak-show gig to watch out for the twins in vaudeville, can no longer conceal his love for Violet, which causes quite a different problem: He's black, and she's not.

It's that second act, with its not-easily-resolved issues, where Sideshow becomes more interesting dramatically and more honest emotionally and historically. The real Violet and Daisy never developed satisfactory long-term relationships with men, and after their vaudeville novelty wore off, they died as supermarket clerks.

Richard T. Hanson directs the Arizona Repertory Theatre production with an eye for stage swirl; the surrounding action is perhaps a bit too busy compared to the rather static staging of the central figures, but it does succeed at creating a bigger-than-life spectacle without resorting to big sets and fancy stage machinery (the UA's new electronic motion-control system never calls attention to itself).

Alison Pahler is sweet and simple as Violet, while Jessica Dorman plays Daisy with a harder edge and saucier personality. Both have fine voices and coordinate their movement smoothly (they stand and sit against each other, rather than being joined by some sort of "twin" costume).

Kyle Harris is both boyish and confident as Buddy. Joey Snider acquits himself well as Terry, but he hasn't yet developed the charisma the role really requires. If it's charisma you want, look no further than Marcus Terrell Smith as Jake, and Jeff Haffner as the sideshow boss. Smith is in fine voice, and acts with intensity and natural dignity; Haffner, the one veteran actor in the mostly undergraduate cast, looks quietly dangerous with his bug-eyed sneer. The rest of the large ensemble handles its multiple duties well.

The one disappointing aspect of this production is the use of a "virtual orchestra," one guy delivering a pre-recorded electronic music track. This practice is becoming increasingly common, though controversial, on the professional stage, mainly as a way to avoid spending big bucks on union musicians. The music provided for this production of Sideshow was sometimes convincing, but often it was timbrally dishonest, and couldn't breathe and stretch with the live singers. There may be some educational value in training students to deal with this when they go into the real world, but it's a technique better reserved for their touring school productions. There's no shortage of music students at the University of Arizona who need the experience of playing in a pit orchestra, and no shortage of theater patrons who would appreciate their effort.

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