SIDE SHOW is a tricky piece, but there was much to savor at Media Theatre’s production, especially in the lead performances of Jenna Pastuszek and Ashley Sweetman as conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, a ripe, ready turn by the always reliable Kelly Briggs, and a general display of esprit and choreographic elegance from newcomer Ronnie Keller. It has a good story, but one in which the chapters tend to have the same theme, a misfit, in the Hilton sisters’ case by an act of uncorrectable nature, yearning to be conventional or, in Daisy’s wish, glamorous, adventurous, and famous.
There is an innate sadness to the Hiltons’ plight because they go far given their inoperable peculiarity but never achieve the acceptance or approval they crave, Daisy having a appetite for the limelight, Violet dreaming of domestic normality with a home, husband, and children. There is also hope. The Hilton Sisters are talented singers whose attachment also allows them to dance, which they do with supple coordination. Yes, they will always be a novelty act, but as composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell demonstrate in their songs, they have the moxie and pizazz to transcend their liability and be as bravura as any sister act or song-and-dance attraction.
At the Media, these numbers show the plus and minus of presenting SIDE SHOW so intimately. The plus brings us back to Pastuszek and Sweetman, who are as symbiotic, copacetic, and finely attuned to each other as you imagine twins who have never spent a moment apart can be. They move silkily and without a hint of likely misstep in costumes sewn to meet at the hip. Their mutual gait flows with grace and ease, as two people practiced, even if by necessity, would do instinctively as it is their lot since birth and not something they would have to learn or compensate for because of an injury and other happenstance. Their musical harmony is as natural and delightful as their movements. Pastuszek and Sweetman seems so in tune with each other, you’d think Cline found them as a duo already dazzling with close harmony, complementary expression, and vocal flair.
The two make their big numbers moving and engaging. But not riveting. And this is where I think the closeness impeded. Ironically because you’d think there would be more power when two performers are being so brilliant with feet of you. Pastuszek and Sweetman make their mark, but Daisy and Violet don’t because distance is needed for extra drama. And to give them a chance to belt virulently without blowing the wigs off the folks in the first row.
SIDE SHOW’s book, also by Bill Russell, has several good and dramatic twists, but its repetitive. One thing SIDE SHOW needs desperately is for its audience to see the Hiltons as vaudeville stars who take over a room like the Astaires or Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice, the latter two mentioned in Russell’s script.
In general, Jesse Cline did a wonderful job with SIDE SHOW and had the right instinct to move it entirely, audience and all, to the stage. The added value from that move supersedes the downside of moments that might seem too small for their own good. Matthew Miller’s set creates the tone and atmosphere Cline calls for. Troy Martin O’Shea’s lighting enhances some important moments, especially in shadow and in the fantasy sequence in which the Hiltons are free of each other. Read more at Neals Paper >>>
[Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pa.] March 8-26, 2017; mediatheatre.org.