‘Side Show’: Doubling Down at Footlighters

The show tells the story of real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who rose to public attention in the 1930s.

click to enlarge L-R: Gregory Good, Katie McCarthy, Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers and Jeffrey Surber in "Side Show." - Photo: Jim Racster
Photo: Jim Racster
L-R: Gregory Good, Katie McCarthy, Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers and Jeffrey Surber in "Side Show."
Any show — especially a musical that promotes itself with the invitation to “Come look at the Freaks” — should anticipate a challenge finding an audience. The 1997 musical Side Show, inspired by Daisy and Violet Hilton, a set of real-life conjoined twins who rose to public attention in the 1930s, had its champions. It ran on Broadway for just three months, earning four Tony Award nominations, but didn’t win any. 

Some found the story a tad on the creepy side, voyeuristically focusing on the twins’ physical deformity and wallowing in their divergent aspirations: Daisy was eager for the spotlight of performance, while Violet yearned for a quiet married life. Both were gullible and easily manipulated by others who made promises that couldn’t be fulfilled. The show is full of sadness and heartbreak — despite a backdrop of camaraderie among the troupe of freak show performers.

In 2014, the show was back on Broadway with an even darker script and some new songs. Like its predecessor, it failed to catch on, running just seven weeks. I’m not sure what the producers were thinking: Side Show’s subject matter is an unlikely topic for commercial success. But it’s an intriguing show with a fine musical score and a cult following.

That’s the backstory for the show’s satisfying amateur production by Footlighters, a community theater that performs at Newport’s Stained Glass Theatre, an 1882 Methodist church converted into a theatrical venue. Bear in mind that community theaters use volunteers — actors, stagehands, musicians and more — and Side Show is a challenging show to produce. Of course there are limitations that result from modest budgets and limited talent pools of willing if not perfect performers. But Footlighters still has assembled a solid cast of 21 for the show, directed by Bill Geraghty, and a strong orchestra with 14 musicians, conducted by Todd Florin.

Finding two actors to play the twins, literally and metaphorically joined at the hip, requires some serious searching for a pair who are physically similar and up to the roles’ acting and singing demands. Just like Daisy and Violet, they need to work together even if they’re performers used to solo leading roles. Katie McCarthy embodies the sunny, star-struck Daisy; Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers takes on the more complex role of reticent, introverted Violet. With costumes and wigs, they certainly look alike. They’re both fine singers, as soloists and in duets, which are naturally the majority of numbers they sing. In particular, they soar on a pair of power ballads, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You.” 

Gregory Good plays Terry, the zealous agent who discovers the twins in a carnival show and helps them escape its loathsome tyrannical manager, Sir (belligerently played by Chuck Ingram). Terry is a difficult role, a not wholly likeable man, who’s eager for success but tripped by his feelings for Daisy. His desire for her is not enough to love her “as she is,” and Good’s performance walks that tightrope.

Jeffrey Surber is Buddy, a talent scout and choreographer who Terry entices to refine the twins’ act. While it’s never overtly stated, it’s clearly inferred that he is gay and plays the romance with Violet at Terry’s insistence for publicity, up to and including a highly publicized 1937 wedding in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl. Surber gives Buddy an air of weak-willed decency that’s quite fitting.

Jake, the sideshow’s only African-American member, first appears as a raving “Cannibal King.” In truth, he’s Daisy’s and Violet’s protector, and Corey Tucker turns in powerful vocal performances with the admonitory song “Before the Devil You Know” and his heartfelt appeal to Violet, “You Should Be Loved.” 

The production is simply staged, using overhead projections to convey a variety of settings. Costumes by Tia Casey are the show’s most spectacular physical aspect: The ensemble constantly changes from freaks — a bearded lady, a lizard man, a half-man half-woman and more — to a rabble of reporters to vaudeville dancers to the New York upper crust at a New Year’s Eve party. Daisy and Violet evolve from curly-haired innocents to sleek bottle blondes, wearing increasingly sophisticated dresses.

Side Show is not a typical community theater production in content or execution. It’s an adventurous artistic choice ambitiously presented.

SIDE SHOW, presented by Footlighters, Inc. at Newport’s Stained Glass Theatre, continues through March 4. Tickets/more info: footlighters.org.

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