“Ladies and Gentlemen! Step right up” to see one of the most inventive extravaganzas ever to grace the Great White Way! We’re talkin’ about “Side Show” folks–the hit musical featuring a book and lyrics by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger based on the lives of real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who became a Vaudeville sensation at the height of the Great Depression. Right now 3-D Theatricals at the landmark Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton California is presenting this first-class entertainment as the second offering of their big 2015 season! Nominated for five 1998 Tony Awards, the story chronicles the sisters’ rise from circus oddities to one of the highest paid acts in vaudeville and occasional movie performers, while exploring their search for love and normality amidst the spectacle and scrutiny of the spotlight during the 1930’s.
As the audience piles into the auditorium, one by one cast members similarly fill the bare bleachers on stage that are situated under strings of lights and a gilt-edged proscenium curtain. Performed sans either overture or entre’ act, house goes to half as the first wraith-like refrain is heard beckoning viewers to “Come look at the freaks…They’ll haunt you for weeks!” Even if, historically, one knows the ending will veer at best toward the bittersweet, we still remain hopeful right along with the sisters, every step of their journey; such is the strength of both Russell’s book and the performances of lead actresses Jeanette Dawson and Afton Quast. One thing’s for sure—they don’t write ‘em like this anymore!
Directed by T.J. Dawson, “Side Show” really could be considered a top-notch ‘operetta’—given the long sumptuously sung sequences filled with heightened emotion and lofty musical phrases. Happily, Mr. Dawson’s spirited and continually fluid direction plays to all these strengths—skillfully giving each aspect its due without ever getting overwhelmed or bogged down, but instead, using all of the robust sensibilities at play to drive the show on to continually bigger and better levels of impressiveness. By the same token, Leslie Stevens’ expert choreography vividly recalls the times and situations inherent to entertainment of the 1930’s, from a roadside dingy shanty exhibition to the more cosmopolitan presentations of Broadway or Hollywood during the same decade. The opening montage of “Come Look At Freaks” is A-Plus, quickly introducing–through movement–all of the “freaks” and their various acts; also, the vintage vaudeville-inspired steps from a nifty soft-shoe as the girls begin to learn their craft to snippets of a sultry New Year’s Eve tango in The Big Apple wonderfully ‘inform’ and enhance the on-stage goings-on. Still another noteworthy aspect to this particular production is the way all the supporting technical elements all blend extraordinarily well to add to its overall effectiveness and enjoyment. The 20 piece orchestra (including a harp), under the helm of Conductor Allen Everman, provide the many magnificent but never intrusive melodies that make the show ascend to dazzling heights! Also meriting kudos are Kate Bergh’s costumes that take the show from drab dust-bowl inspired flannels to fabulously showy and sophisticated 30’s era glamour.
The production also features some terrific ensemble work, and the voices of each member are more than up to the score’s pithy requirements. Indeed, another of the show’s copious virtues is the way it sandwiches in some pretty heady sentimental moments between some genuinely soaring musical passages. In addition to the opening, the group succeed prodigiously with “The Devil You Know”, which steadily builds—starting as a solo first, then involving the entire company as they debate the wisdom of the twins leaving their side-show home to risk pursuing the (perhaps empty) promises of their new managers, Buddy and Terry. Shortly after, they also collectively amaze with the touching “Say Goodbye To The Freak-show”. Throughout, the various opulent “spectaculars” once the twins ‘hit the big time’ (featuring among other things, a line of dancing Egyptian chorus-boys or a flock of brightly colored “birds”) offer plenty of great opportunities for some terpsichorean grandeur.
Headlining as the Hilton twins, Jeanette Dawson is “Violet” while Afton Quast is her sister “Daisy”; both possess incredible voices that work brilliantly in concert with one another, while still remaining distinct and memorably individual. Moreover, both are on stage practically the entire time! Their ‘duologue’ titled “Feelings You’ve Got To Hide” is a triumph for each, while their act one closer, the potent “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” sharply captures the universality of the Hilton girls story; for better or worse, they really are just like anybody else with the same hopes and vulnerabilities as everyone–especially when it comes to desire and romance. Later, their concluding chanson, “I Will Never Leave You” is both beautiful and slightly forlorn, featuring some excellent harmony from both.
As “Buddy Foster”, the first to “discover’ them, Gary Brintz is likeable and exceptionally empathetic; however, although genial enough, we ultimately learn that he’s after his big “break” too! Gifted with a voice to be reckoned with, Brintz makes “More Than We Bargained For” a significant bit of fore-shadowing early on, before flourishing with the more playful “One Plus One Equals Three”. As his associate, “Terry Connor” —a talent scout for the famous “Orpheum Circuit” who initially undertakes to oversee the girls’ career, Gregg Hammer has a rich, full and expressive voice which he unveils to remarkable effect with his second act soliloquy “Private Conversation” as Terry dreams of the courage to express his deep affections for Daisy. Together, Dawson, Quast, Brintz and Hammer all do a striking job, first with “New Year’s Eve” during which Buddy finally proposes to Violet, then later with the surreal “Tunnel Of Love” as each of this admittedly unusual quartet ponder the romantic possibilities and complications facing them. Nathan Holland also offers up fine support in the dual role of the often seethingly vicious and conniving side-show “Boss” and later as Director “Todd Browning”. It is he who first greets the audience, striking just the right balance of tantalization and salaciousness with the opening wherein he introduces his curious assemblage.
Jay Donnell too, as fellow side-show performer and the sisters’ loyal friend and protector, “Jake”, is a down-right revelation. Not only does he have an awesomely Atlantean and soulful voice, he also wields the passion to deliver it to the back of the house when required. Donnell absolutely electrifies with his part at the start of “The Devil You Know”, but he really brings down the house with his dynamic Act Two benediction, “You Deserve To Be Loved” as he fervently makes known his long suppressed feelings for Violet. Elevating this song into a bona fide “aria” (for that’s how much raw power he packs into it) Jake begs her not to go through with a sham marriage to Buddy who really can’t love her the way he truly does. This number also reveals one of the more heart-wrenching plot elements: if only she could see beyond the ingrained racism of the time, Violet could at last experience the one thing she desires most of all—a husband who deeply cares for her; but fearing society’s reaction to an inter-racial marriage, she condemns herself to a life devoid of any love at all.
So sit back and hang on, because you’re in for a thrill-ride that’s “as grand as the canyon” and twice as enjoyable! Likewise, don’t be surprised if, on more than one occasion you find yourself wanting to shout “Encore!” Plummer Auditorium is located at 201 E. Chapman Avenue in Fullerton, California. “Side Show” opened Saturday April 25th and will run through Sunday, May 10th , 2015; Show-times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM, with added shows on Thursday, May 7 at 8:00 PM and Saturday May 9 at 2:00 and 8:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased by phone by calling 714 589-2770, Ext. 1, between the hours of 11:00 AM–5:00 PM, Monday through Friday; 12:00–4:00 PM on Saturday, or by visiting the Plummer Auditorium box office two hours prior to show-time. Tickets may also be purchased on-line by visiting: www.3dtshows.com. (Special Group and Student discounts are available.)
Production Stills By Isaac James Creative (www.IsaacJamesCreative.com) Courtesy Of Michael Sterling & Associates (www.msapr.net) and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To Michael Sterling, T.J. Dawson, Daniel Dawson, Gretchen Dawson And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” “Side Show” For Making This Story Possible.