Farmer's Branch — If you grew up in a particular reality-television era, hearing the phrase “the Hilton sisters” brings to mind a very different pair than Daisy and Violet, the conjoined twins at the heart of Side Show, the 1997 Broadway musical (extensively reworked for a 2014 revival) by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger currently running at The Firehouse Theatre. The show, despite some critical success in both incarnations, never hit it big with audiences, and closed quickly after short runs.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why; despite having the building blocks for success—the acting challenge for the protagonists (played winningly here by Bethany Lorentzen and Katie Moyes Williams), the alternating moody carnival atmosphere contrasted with the glitz of the 20s and 30s, and the compelling (mostly true) story—the songs are bland and forgettable, and the piece never really presents a coherent vision. And, despite enjoying several of their recent musical offerings, I’m disappointed to say that Firehouse Theatre’s production, directed and choreographed by Linda Leonard, does nothing to elevate the material, stumbling artistically and, most significantly, in its technical design.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in England in 1908, and were fused at the pelvis, though they shared no major organs. Still, doctors felt that separation of the girls was too risky, so it wasn’t attempted. The girls’ mother shunned them and essentially sold them to her employer Mary Hilton, who trained them in singing and dancing, touring them around the country as “The United Twins.” The girls were, horrifyingly, “bequeathed” to Hilton’s daughter, who trained them in dance and toured them around the U.S. Daisy and Violet eventually sued for their emancipation, which was granted in 1931, just in time for Daisy and Violet’s fifteen minutes of fame as featured actresses in Todd Browning’s seminal horror classic Freaks. The two moved on to the vaudeville circuit, finding mild success for a time, then gradually ended up working burlesque houses, before ending their lives as grocery clerks in Charlotte, NC, where they performed for co-workers in the back room on breaks before their deaths in 1969. Despite the fact that modern doctors felt the women could be successfully separated, the two insisted that they always wanted to be together, and so both women died within hours of one another.
Russel and Krieger used the twins’ real life story as a jumping off point, but the musical plays up the more romantic aspects of their lives and embellishes the truth lavishly. Unemployed shyster and sometime talent scout Terry Connor (Kris Allen) brings one of his protégés, dancer Buddy Foster (Matthew James Anderson), to a dusty side show in Texas to see his latest find: conjoined twins Daisy and Violet, who sing like angels. The girls are under the tyrannical thumb of the side show’s owner, dubbed only “Sir” (Dan Servetnick), though they’re loved and cared for by the band of variously-abled side show performers, and especially by bodyguard/keeper Jake (Ausben Jordan), who harbors a particular affection for Violet. Daisy, who dreams of fame and fortune, is entranced by Terry’s vision of making it big outside the side show (and, secretly, by Terry himself), while Violet, who only wants a normal life, falls hard for goodhearted Buddy. So the girls make a bid for freedom and the bright lights of vaudeville, finding a measure of success, even as the public continues to treat them like a side show exhibition. But can either woman find love and happiness while they’re still connected?
It’s rare that the technical design of a piece so thoroughly eclipses the performances, but such is the case with Firehouse’s production. But first, let’s focus on the show’s positives. Lead actresses Lorentzen and Williams are wonderful as Daisy and Violet, working in perpetual tandem to not only simply walk across the stage, but sing and dance beautifully as well. It’s a real tour de force (though some more concrete grounding of the physical connection point between the two might be called for at some moments). Williams also designed the costumes for herself and her co-star, which included some stunning gowns for both women. Kris Allen’s Terry has comedic chops to be sure, and his flirtations with Daisy smolder with real heat. Anderson charms as the hapless Buddy, though certain aspects of the character’s sexuality are simply not played throughout the piece, muddling the character’s narrative by show’s end. Jordan, as the soulful Jake, sings with great power and gusto, and Servetnick’s Sir has a certain elegance-gone-to-seed vibe that made him an interesting character study.
The show’s lighting design (from Bryan Douglas, also the show’s set designer) and execution makes all the show’s better qualities difficult not only to focus on, but to see at all. At the performance reviewed, follow spots were consistently late and misplaced, and the focus of a scene at several key moments was dim at best; the show simply didn’t seem to know what it wanted the audience looking at any given moment. Sword Swallower Amanda Durbin who, if she wasn’t actually swallowing a sword, certainly gives a convincing impression of doing so, performs her act in virtual obscurity (and, as an aside, nearly gave this reviewer a heart attack as she was pushed towards the back of the stage on a moving platform with three feet of metal down her throat). The show’s choreography (from director Leonard) poses its own difficulties, as the show’s large cast is deployed haphazardly, crowding the stage and often obscuring the main action, noticeably in Act I’s “Ready To Play” and in Act II’s “One Plus One Equals Three.”
Sound design, too, had its share of problems. In the initial scene, offstage performers are drowned out by the onstage band (Music Director Kelley Poche-Rodriguez as conductor and on keyboards, with Trevor Hale on a second keyboard, lending a certain unfortunately 80s synth vibe to much of the music), and though the performers wore body mics, the sound levels varied wildly throughout, which was especially noticeable in Act I’s gospel-tinged “The Devil You Know.” The costume design for the other characters (not attributed in the show’s playbill), notably the side show performers, show occasional flair. However, some elementary issues, such as fit and hemming, were glaringly obvious, and some performers’ unblended makeup and visible wig caps were more reminiscent of high school performances than a semi-professional theater.
Firehouse Theatre’s profile in the DFW theater community has been on the rise in recent years, so it’s a shame that this production so thoroughly misses the mark. Hopefully this show is a rare misstep on the road to bigger and better things for this company.