Sob Sisters and the Old Maid

The Play House upgrades a weak musical while CPT mangles a classic.

Side Show Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through May 20


Summer and Smoke

Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue

Through May 5


Carol Dunne and Sandra Simon as the inseparable - sisters, with C. Mingo Long.
Carol Dunne and Sandra Simon as the inseparable sisters, with C. Mingo Long.
In the great Funny Girl tradition, we have two explorations of dames who just can't hold their men.

Side Show at the Cleveland Play House is a lachrymose musical that creeped out Broadway audiences in its short run. Remotely based on a true story of conjoined twins, it follows the exploits of the Hilton sisters as they tread the path of relentless disappointment and heartbreak, from abused sideshow attractions to lovelorn stars-to-be of Todd Browning's cult horror film Freaks.

Presented two years ago at Cain Park by the same director, Victoria Bussert, with partially the same cast, it is on this occasion so elegantly souped up and presented with such high-priced razzmatazz that bamboozled audiences border on granting it absolution for a climax that scales the Mount Fuji of absurdity. When the sisters lose at l'amour, they turn to each other with the solemnity of Supreme Court justices and commence to sing "I Will Never Leave You." If done with a wink, it would have rivaled Mel Brooks's new smash musical The Producers in joyous mockery. Written to be performed with the fevered intensity of Barbra Streisand singing "My Man," it becomes an anthem to new-age pomposity.

A show chronicling the perilous course of true love on the freak circuit is a juicy proposition for '40s B movies but a mighty iffy idea on the Great White Way. The authors need the courage to give it a Brechtian chill, a sense of perverse irony, to ward off the stink of bathos. Lyricist-bookwriter Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger start off the show in the right direction. What looks like an Appalachian chorus line transforms before our eyes into the archetypes of the freak show: geeks biting off the heads of chickens, a bearded half-man/ half-woman, the mandatory fat lady, and sword swallowers -- the earth's refuse, all glaring at the audience, challenging it with "Come Look at the Freaks."

Bussert, who excels at depicting the grotesque, makes the first 20 minutes crackle with perversity. David Colacci's satanic circus boss dominates the proceedings with such malicious glee, he resembles an evil munchkin.

Despite all the obvious talent that goes into this production, the show can't help turning repulsively "sensitive." We leave the freak show for a landscape where everyone cavorts like slumming relationship counselors, regurgitating their tortured feelings in touchy-feely pop ballads like "You Deserve a Better Life" and "Who Will Love Me as I Am?"

A couple of energizing vaudeville numbers offer blessed reprieves from the relentless self-pity. The sisters turn into dual Cleopatras, whooping it up with prancing pharaohs, and there is a wonderful Sondheim-like ode that, in the manner of Follies, turns a crisis into a showbiz ditty.

Just as they did at Cain Park back in '99, Carol Dunne and Sandra Simon as the sisters give the show more than it deserves. Moving together in perfect unison is the least of their accomplishments. They are alternately winsome, spry in their dancing, and as daintily distressed as the Gish sisters at their peak. Greg Violand, as one of the twins' dream men, invigorates the audience with his lush voice, raffish demeanor, and bracing stage presence.

The Play House hasn't displayed such crafty opulence since Nixon got caught. Russ Borski's wonderful costumes succinctly evoke the Depression; Janiece Kelley-Kiteley's dance numbers are restorative tonics.

Director Bussert, after giving us a threadbare Gypsy, is back in top form as a dominatrix of musical theater. In a tunnel-of-love production number, the twins ardently search for a sexual connection with their swains while riding on scene designer Karen TenEyck's heart-strewn swan. Smoke emanating from dry ice adds infinite mystery. All this generates a brand of opiate that makes us forget we're watching a valentine to victimization.

Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke chronicles the travails of Miss Alma, a minister's repressed daughter who gradually sheds her inhibitions to become a hedonist while, ironically, the young doctor she futilely adores abandons his recklessness to become fixated in Puritanism. None of this is apparent in the extremely misconceived production currently on view at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Director Raymond Bobgan, who specializes in fables about Incan sun gods, has betrayed his obligation to illuminate the play's text. He displays no feeling for period detail or, indeed, for logically unfolding a story. He has allowed talented performers to appear as buffoons by triple-casting. In a moment that will rank in the annals of local embarrassment with the night the Cuyahoga River caught fire, Bobgan has an actor playing two roles fight and then murder himself onstage. He has permitted Jill Levin, a gifted and bewitching actress, to turn Miss Alma into a superficial, neurotic creature doing an Annie Hall number. He has encouraged the usually talented Randy Rollison to read Williams's stage directions aloud, as though he were Thornton Wilder's Our Town stage manager enacted by Truman Capote in a fit of pretentiousness.

Bobgan has committed the cardinal directorial sin of debasing Tennessee Williams with cute and clever gimmicks, such as a photo of a cupid serving to represent the show's essential angel fountain, and worst of all, he has betrayed the author's ending by portraying Miss Alma as the same mannered fool she was at the beginning, completely obliterating the play's central transformation. There is no character development, and hence the drama is rendered pointless.

Williams, who endured so much abuse in his lifetime, deserves a better fate after death.

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