By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The actresses playing conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton in the musical Side Show, now on view in a fine, emotionally charged production at Theatre Three, don't use any special tricks to achieve the illusion of being attached at the hip. Their costumes aren't even stitched together. Julie Stirman (Daisy) and Jennifer Freeman (Violet) are so good at moving in tandem, coordinating their gestures, dance steps and even breaths to accommodate the nearness of the other, that they don't need any special effects. They do it the old-fashioned way, with expert acting technique and portrayals so authentic and delicately drawn that it comes as a surprise to see the two women taking separate bows during the curtain call.
The fascinating, achingly sweet performances by Stirman and Freeman are reason enough to see Side Show, an offbeat, hard-to-categorize vehicle making its Texas premiere at Theatre Three. Like Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, this show follows dark, melancholy themes and tells its sad story with haunting, dissonant tunes in a sung-through libretto with little spoken dialogue. Composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell make a mini-opera out of their somewhat fictionalized take on the real-life saga of the Hilton twins and their rise from carnival freak show stages in the 1920s and '30s to roles in several low-budget Hollywood films.
The Hiltons' is not a feel-good story. Sold into sideshow servitude as children by the midwife who bought them from their unwed birth mother, Daisy and Violet became Depression-era celebrities on the low end of the vaudeville circuit. Pretty and talented, they sang, played several musical instruments and learned dance steps from fellow vaudevillian Bob Hope, working the choreography around their condition as pygopagic twins whose lower spines were fused at the hip, forcing them to live side by side.
Side Show opens with the Hiltons headlining as featured ingenues of a sleazy traveling circus. "Come and look at the freaks! Come and gaze at the geeks!" sing the stars of the midway attraction where "Siamese twins" Violet and Daisy first get noticed. Among the slightly sinister acts in the company are the slithery Reptile Man (Coy Covington), snout-sporting Pig Boy (Trey Albright), Cat Girl (Christina Neubrand) and the four-breasted fortuneteller (Sara Shelby-Martin). The "King of the Cannibals" looks terrifying to the carnival crowd but actually is a gentle giant named Jake (Keron Jackson), who serves as the twins' bodyguard and harbors a secret crush on one of them. The Boss (Sonny Franks) is a classic villain who treats his misshapen employees miserably, dehumanizing them to the point where they go on strike and take over the show in protest.
Enter two rays of hope for the pretty red-haired Hilton twins. Buddy Foster (Ric Leal) is a cute singer-dancer willing to coach the girls in a classier new act. Terry Connor (Eric Domuret) is a smooth-talking talent scout for the Orpheum circuit, the same company that would give Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee their boosts to the big-time.
The men take an interest in the twins' career. The twins take a romantic interest in the guys. But stuck on a perpetual double date, for the first time in their lives Violet and Daisy begin to long for separate identities. "Leave me alone," they sing. "I need a life of my own." To gain some measure of privacy, they learn to "shut the door" on each other, each retreating into some interior sanctuary where the other doesn't exist.
Russell and Krieger's musical numbers emphasize both the twins' devotion to one another and their unfulfilled desire for normalcy and individuality. "We Share Everything" is a bouncy bit of vaudeville kitsch that proclaims to the public how happy the Hilton sisters are to live hand-in-hand and hip-to-hip. "We're never pushy-shovey/We're always lovey-dovey," they twitter. But later on, in "Who Will Love Me as I Am," Daisy and Violet express their inner pain at wanting husbands and children and picket-fenced privacy.
Each song in Side Showdeftly moves the plot along. The turning point in the story comes in a big Act 2 number called "Tunnel of Love," which finds the girls starring at Fair Park in the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936. Daisy is wildly in love with the slick Terry, who's about to make a lucrative deal that would give the girls starring roles in the film Freaks. Violet is engaged to Buddy, with their wedding set to draw thousands of spectators to a gaudy Cotton Bowl ceremony.
But a romantic encounter on a midway ride upsets the plans. In the eerie darkness of the Tunnel of Love, Daisy seduces Terry, who's been understandably reluctant about getting involved with his half of the act. And Violet discovers that Buddy's interest in her is as cold as the skin of the Reptile Man.
As performed on the little square stage of Theatre Three, "Tunnel of Love" is magical and disturbing. Stirman and Freeman manage to display the twins' budding sensuality with just the right amount of intensity. And as the boyfriends, Leal and Domuret turn out to be the real freaks in this scenario. It's their behavior that makes us feel like voyeurs as we watch them squirm through their liaisons with the girls. "Sharing life with two is more than I can do," Buddy realizes. The desperation of Violet and Daisy, who exit into the cold light of day knowing that their hopes are shattered, is palpable and heartbreaking.
Actresses Stirman and Freeman, whose voices blend beautifully, hit all the right beats in this scene, and the rest of the show, too. They are ably supported by Leal and Domuret, who are both oily and attractive, and by big man Keron Jackson as Jake, who finally works up the courage to tell his adored Violet "You Should Be Loved" in an electrifying song that shows off Jackson's acting and impressive vocal range.
Director Jac Alder and choreographer Linda Leonard move their actors around every angle of the small acting space, painting strong visual pictures on Harland Wright's colorful but spare set. Costume designer Patty Korbelic Williams dresses the cast in rich textures and bold colors. Her designs for Violet and Daisy are especially effective, letting them mature from girlish frills and bows in Act 1 to sleekly elegant velvets and silks in Act 2. Musical director Terry Dobson keeps tight control over his small orchestra, perched a level above the acting space, never overpowering the unmiked actors.
Ultimately, the success of Side Show depends on its Hilton sisters. And the two stars of Theatre Three's production are terrific actresses, so evenly matched physically and vocally that it's easy to accept that they're not only sisters but sisters who share the same flesh and blood. Stirman and Freeman play the roles with dignity and a whisper of sadness, as if resigned that whatever stardom their characters find will be offset by unrealized dreams of personal happiness. It's a delicate balance, playing physical closeness but giving each girl a separate identity. Stirman and Freeman are perfectly in tune with each other's rhythms and are absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
The end of Act 2 finds Violet and Daisy left alone, seeking solace in each other as always and expressing it in the haunting ballad "I Will Never Leave You." Although Daisy's goal of becoming a movie star will come true, it won't be as she imagined. They will always be on public display as accidents of nature. The cast of the carnival sideshow returns to the stage to reprise "Come Look at the Freaks," this time daring onlookers to look inside themselves to discover what sets normal apart from abnormal. Side Show leaves its audience disquieted by its subject matter but touched by the honesty of the performances and the universal message of its story.