KPBS AIRDATE: April 12, 2002
The cast comes down the aisles, steps onto the stage and faces the audience, glaring. They examine us, one by one. And then they launch into the hard-edged, aggressive opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” And who are the freaks, anyway? The congenitally disfigured or their gapers and gawkers? This is just one of the powerful questions subtly asked in “Side Show,” the 1997 musical now in a stunning production at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.
Loosely based on historical fact, it’s all about the inseparable Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, who are, quite literally, joined at the hip. From the time of their Siamese twin birth in 1908, they were exploited and exhibited, first in side shows, later on the vaudeville circuit and finally, in movies like “Freaks” in 1932 and “Chained for Life” in 1951. All they desired was to be like everyone else, to lead a normal life. Daisy wanted excitement; Violet wanted a family. But they were used at every turn, even by the supposedly caring men who took them out of the freak-show, nearly married them and made them famous. It was always and only about the oddity and when the novelty finally wore off, the twins wound up as 60 year-old supermarket checkers in North Carolina (though that part isn’t in the show).
The musical — unusual, unsettling, thematically unconventional — disturbs and titillates, putting us in the position of voyeurs who, like the invasive, abrasive reporters, want to know all the sordid details of what day-to-day life might be as a Siamese twin. But the show is, at heart, about Otherness, outsiders who can never be accepted. The point is made in the extreme when Jake, the black man who knows the girls from their side show days, finally professes his love to Violet, and she rejects him. He can get past her sister, but she can’t get past his skin. It’s a brutal moment, like so many others in this unnerving, sometimes humorous, often thought-provoking musical.
The score, by Henry Krieger, and the lyrics, by Bill Russell, may not linger, but the story continues to haunt. This small-theater production is flawless. As the sisters, Misty Cotton and Julie Dixon Jackson are dazzlingly separate but equal — endearing, talented and ultimately heart-breaking. The four men in their lives — the sleazy boss, the no-nonsense manager, the self-promoting would-be husband and the gentle, loving Jake, are all masterfully played. The 17-person, mostly Equity ensemble is superb, the set and lighting simple but effective, and the costumes striking. Nick De Gruccia has directed with dramatic flair, a sly mix of gravitas and glitz. A major triumph in LA, it’s a trek, but definitely worth the trip.
©2002 Patté Productions