Freaks reign supreme in 3-D Theatrical’s big-stage revival of Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Side Show (The Original), easily one of the finest 3-D productions ever, and for those of us who have marveled at their Ragtime, Funny Girl, and Parade (among others), that is saying something indeed.
If I specify “The Original,” it is to alert musical theater buffs that 3-D artistic director T.J. Dawson has mounted and directed Side Show with Russell’s book and Krieger’s songs as audiences first discovered them back in 1997, and not in the revised (but ultimately diminished) form they took in last year’s Broadway revival.
Both original and “revisal” focus on real-life “Siamese twins” Daisy and Violet Hilton, who went from Freak Show attraction to vaudeville stardom to a Hollywood debut in Tod Browning’s 1933 cult hit Freaks.
Russell’s revised book (with “additional book material” by Bill Condon) opted to delve deeper into the twins’ pre-Side Show life, which may have seemed a plus on the drawing board but proved an unnecessary fix to something that wasn’t “broke” in the first place. (The same can be said for the revival’s added biographical details that ended up detracting from rather than adding to the show’s impact.)
Yes, Side Show flopped big eighteen years ago (and did even worse at the box office in 2014), but that is likely more due to Broadway audiences’ demand for frothy feel-good musical comedy romps than to any failing in its original book and songs.
Indeed, composer Krieger may be best known for Dreamgirls, but his Side Show melodies are even more gorgeous than those penned for The Dreams. They don’t get any more beautiful, or powerful, than “Like Everyone Else,” “Feelings You’ve Got To Hide,” “You Should Be Loved,” and the show’s two biggest hits, “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You,” all of the above featuring Russell’s powerful, poetic lyrics.
And the true-life tale Russell has to tell couldn’t be more fascinating or compelling.
Conjoined twins Daisy (Afton Quast) and Violet (Jeanette Dawson) grew up as circus Side Show attractions alongside Bearded Lady, Snake Girl, Reptile Man and other assorted “freaks,” virtual prisoners of Side Show owner The Boss (Nathan Holland).
Indeed, the sisters might have remained behind invisible bars for the rest of their lives had aspiring entertainer Buddy Foster (Gary Brintz) not caught their act and persuaded talent scout Terry Connor (Gregg Hammer) that the comely teenagers had a future ahead of them in vaudeville on the Orpheum Circuit.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to recounting the Hilton twins’ professional lives, Side Show also delves into their private loves, with homebody Violet falling for Terry and fame-seeker Daisy developing her own romantic feelings for Buddy, while African-American “Cannibal King” Jake (Jay Donnell) harbors unrequited love for the quieter, gentler of the twins.
The recent Broadway revival may have given Terry and Buddy a cleverly titled introductory song in “Very Well Connected,” but anyone seeing that version would probably have traded it for a pair of excised numbers that enriched Side Show in its original form and do so again on the Plummer Auditorium stage.
“More Than We Bargained For” reveals Buddy’s discomfort with Violet’s affections and an understanding of why he feels at last at home amongst “freaks.” As for “Tunnel Of Love,” its grievous omission robbed the revival of not only an Act Two showstopper but one whose consequences inform decisions made by Daisy and Violet and the men who love them. (3-D’s gravity-defying staging of the latter merits its own oohs and aahs.)
Director Dawson knows and loves Broadway’s original Side Show probably better than anyone else in town, and having directed its two current stars in a previous production some years back, he is clearly the man to re-realize Russell and Krieger’s 1997 dreams, this time round blessed with a 20-piece orchestra, a Broadway-caliber design team, and a cast as dreamy as dream casts come.
The original Broadway production scored Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner a shared Tony nomination for their roles, and its 3-D stars are equally deserving of award recognition. Dawson’s husband-&-home-seeking Violet and Quast’s seeker of celebrity, worship, and acclaim could not be more different, despite their matching costumes and hair, and each is absolutely superb. (That some audience members wonder if the two are wearing “conjoined” costumes—they aren’t—is tribute to just how physically in sync Dawson and Quast are as well.)
As for stealth weapon Donnell, the SoCal favorite has never been more sensational, the role of the tormented Jake giving him ample meat to chew on, and if any performance merits its own standing ovation, it is Donnell’s “You Should Be Loved.”
The rest of the cast may not have their own lines to say or solos to sing, but this is one of 3-D’s finest triple-threat ensembles ever, composed of one leading player after another. There’s not an ensemble member “phoning in” a performance. Instead, each creates a his or her character’s own history, and while some back stories may be more obvious than others (Dawson gives Side Show’s handsome Fakir and one of the hunkier roustabouts a same-sex romance), each has clearly done considerable prep in creating a real person behind the freak.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a Broadway ensemble any more dazzling than Matthew Ballestero (Bearded Lady), Kat Borrelli (Harem Girl), Dustin Ceithamer (Geek), Adam Dingeman (Strong Man), April Jo Henry (Harem Girl), Jonah Ho’okano (Fakir), dance captain Chris Holly (Freak), Natalie Iscovich (Harem Girl), Bren Thor Johnson (Roustabout), Emily King Brown (Tattooed Human Pin Cushion), Tracy Lore (Half Man-Half Woman), Tracy Rowe Mutz (Sixth Exhibit), Dino Nicandros (Reptile Man), Christanna Rowader (Fortune Teller), Aaron Scheff (Three-Legged Man), Brandon Pohl (Roustabout), Justin Matthew Segura (Roustabout), Deonne Sones (Dolly Dimples), Momoko Sugai (Snake Girl), and Josh Wise (Roustabout), who appear also as reporters, party guests, doctors, film makers, and other assorted cameos.
Choreographer Leslie Stevens may not be given the opportunity for as many traditional dance sequences as she’d get in say Anything Goes, other than a terrific full-cast tango and a couple of equally fine vaudeville numbers, but she merges dance and “movement” to perfection throughout.
Allen Everman scores highest marks for bringing to life this almost entirely sung-through musical, both as musical director and as conductor, his expert orchestra provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective.
The same can be said for Side Show’s dream production design team, all of them starting from scratch and building a “package” that could easily prompt other musical theaters to rent-and-revive this largely unsung Broadway gem.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s gorgeous sets, Jean-Yves Tessier’s stunning lighting design, Julie Ferrin’s impeccable sound design, Cliff & Kat Senior’s myriad wigs, Denice Paxton’s impressive makeup design, and Gretchen Morales and Melanie Cavaness’s abundance of showbiz properties all contribute to making this a Side Show to remember.
Best of all are Kate Bergh’s costumes, as amazing a display of imagination and color as I’ve seen in a 3-D show, and if one revival alteration (the substitution of a more aptly-themed “Stuck On You” for the original Act Two opener “Rare Songbirds On Display”) actually improved the show, its inclusion here would have robbed Bergh of the opportunity to create the most breathtaking display of Technicolor feathers I may ever have seen.
Jene Roach is technical director. Vernon Willet is production stage manager and Terry Hanrahan assistant stage manager.
Ryan Ruge is assistant to the director. T.J. Dawson is executive producer and Daniel Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, and Jeanette Dawson are co-producers.
Chelsea Emma Franko understudies both Daisy and Violet.
Despite its Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Book Of A Musical, and Best Original Score, the original Side Show lasted a mere three and a half months on Broadway and the 2014 revival didn’t even make it to three, all the more reason to celebrate its phoenix-like re-rebirth at 3-D Theatricals.
This may not be your traditional “feel-good” musical smash a la Hairspray, Mamma Mia, or 3-D’s most recent hit Seussical The Musical, but Side Show will keep you engrossed in its story, enthralled with its music, thrilled by its performances and design, and that is something quite extraordinary indeed.
3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
April 26, 2015
Photos: Isaac James Creative