“Come look at the freaks,” sings the chorus at the top of Side Show (1997, revised 2013), as a panoply of “outsiders” display themselves to our gaze.
There's a bearded lady (Katie Chaisson), a dog boy (John Magalhaes), a three-legged man (Talon Broughton), a human pin cushion (Megan Morgan), a living Venus de Milo (Brittany Halen), a half man/half woman (Jayson Kolbicz), a lizard man (Christopher Tipps), a cannibal king (Malik Cole), a tattooed lady (Donna Bella Litton), a geek (Oleode Oshotse), two tiny Cossacks (Solomon Barke and Zayne Sakkal) a fortune teller (Jordynn Godfrey) among the attractions, browbeaten into obedience by cruel barker Sir (Brian Matthis).
But the headliners are Daisy and Violet Hilton (Holland Vavra and Teresa Zimmermann), sisters conjoined at the hip. They could be your average girls-next-door, sweet-faced and cherubic, except for the trick of fate nature has pulled. In this seedy world of lowdown amusement, we cannot look away. For $2 extra, insinuates oily Sir, the sisters will show you where they're attached.
Two down-on-their-luck hustlers see the sisters' potential. Why, we'll turn them into stars, sings Terry (Nick Szoeke), as sweeter Buddy (Nathan Wilson) plans a song-and-dance routine for them.
So begins one of Broadway's most cult musicals. Though lavishly praised at its premiere by the New York Times' theater critics, this disquieting show never caught on, playing barely three months before closing. An extensive rewrite in 2013 for San Diego's renowned La Jolla Playhouse fared no better, although the musical was tightened with deeper character motivation by book writer/lyricist Bill Russell. Partner Buddy is now in the closet. Many of the original songs were dropped and replaced by new ones or numbers that had been resurrected from composer Henry Kreiger's bottomless trunk. (Kreiger had previously written his one great show, Dreamgirls, in 1981.)
Fairly sung-through, Side Show's strange allure depends on the songs, and Kreiger supplies a raft of pastiche '30s numbers, vaudeville throwaways, and contemporary power ballads in lively competition. The sound is faux Sondheim with a jagged bite of Kander and Ebb, but it works exceedingly well at defining character and setting mood. Russell's lyrics don't match Kreiger's proficiency or witty charm. While Queensbury Theatre's production, directed by Marley Singletary, loses momentum when the drama most heats up, Ryan McGettigan's roughly sketched carnival background, Christina R. Giannelli's subtly hued lighting, Kristin Knipp's apt period costumes, and Bethany White's exuberant tap numbers convey both the grunge and deceptive frivolity of the Depression era.
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But the show's heart, of course, are the sisters. And Queensbury Theatre delivers magnificently, with Vavra as ambitious Daisy and Zimmermann as more mundane Violet. They truly shine. When they blend their belting voices for the musical's signature pieces, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” it's as if one person sings in tandem. They throw each other knowing glances or sympathetically drape an arm on a shoulder to comfort. Completely opposite in world views, these two become one, both longing for acceptance and the chance to be loved like everybody else. The irony that they can never be on their own is a poignant curse. As the plot progresses and love beckons for each, they become more and more prickly, desperate to be free but realizing they are bound together forever.
Except for the leading ladies, it's a bumpy night for characterization. Szoeke has the requisite pipes for Terry's conflicting aria, “A Private Conversation,” his dream of a life with an untethered Daisy, but his city slicker seems too nice and decent to wheedle into Daisy's life, smugly leading her on. Wilson, so mesmerizing as the damned Master of Ceremonies in Obsidian's Cabaret, though possessing a Broadway gypsy's suave tap moves, is strangely tamped down as closeted Buddy. He fully arrives in Act II. Cole is entirely empathetic as handler Jake who loves Violet from afar. His tender pleading, “You Should Be Loved,” is immensely satisfying. And Tipps' acrobatic dance routines, with their appreciative nod to the Nicholas Brothers, are among the production's highlights.
Side Show is a tantalizing hybrid. It is weirdly conventional. Conventional in its oft-told showbiz tale of any young outsider's rise to fame; weird in whose tale is being told. On some deep level we're all outsiders, desiring to fit in, to be “normal.” That's all Daisy and Violet want. Daisy's normal means fame; Violet's means non-fame. Both crave a chance at happiness, to be their own person, to stand alone. Is that so freaky?
Side Show continues through April 14 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For information, call 713-467-4497 or visit queensburytheatre.org. $21-$49.