You'll Never Get Away From Me

Side Show is a tale of Siamese sisterly devotion.

Ten Things I Hate About You
Two freaks, one low price: Side Show at Alma Theatre.
Two freaks, one low price: Side Show at Alma Theatre.
Side Show is a 1997 Broadway also-ran. Being neither a live stage version of a Disney movie nor a star-spangled rehash of an aged show, it sort of fell through the cracks. A musical about Siamese twins with no pop stars to bolster it is a hard sell to the average tourist from Oshkosh.

The same musical is trying its luck at Cain Park's Alma Theater. If you can take the double humidity — the weather and the thwarted passions of the play's unfortunate twins — this is an ideal break from summer reruns. With no Aunt Eller at the butter churn or Birdie twitching Elvis hips, it's as refreshing as a scoop of sorbet in cleansing the palate.

Bill Russell's book and lyrics smack of those get-in-touch-with-your-feelings manuals that populate the second-floor self-help section of your local book emporium ("Feeling love is normal; hiding it is not. Why can't you display the love you know we've got?"), and Henry Krieger's music is relentlessly new age, with the uneasy cloning of Philip Glass repetition, Burt Bacharach balladry, and watered-down Kurt Weill Weltschmerz. Above all, it is Andrew Lloyd Webberish-sounding. Even though it is heartfelt and has some nifty vaudeville pastiche numbers, it fails to achieve higher aspirations. One wonders what Stephen Sondheim would have done with this material.

The show has a fascinating premise: freaks who love too much. It was inspired by a little-known footnote to cinema history: a fictionalized biography of the Hilton sisters — Daisy and Violet — Siamese twins who started out in a carnival freak show, toured on a second-string vaudeville circuit, and achieved a sort of fame in the cult films Freaks and Chained for Life. They then proceeded to instant oblivion, ending their days in North Carolina as supermarket checkers until they died of Hong Kong flu within minutes of each other at the age of sixty.

Like a typical Hollywood photoplay, this musical pares the pair's life down to their romantic travails. Jake, the carnival's Cannibal King, is in love with one of the sisters, but — this being the '30s and he being a "Negro" — it's a societal no-no. (As a consolation prize, he is handed one of the evening's plum ballads, titled "You Should Be Loved.") The girls ultimately pin their love and hope on two men, one a brassy showman and the other a sincere song/dance coach. The so-called regular fellows delude themselves into the possibility of wedded bliss until a steamy foursome tryst in the Tunnel of Love, where the men become aware of, uh, awkward aspects of cohabitation with Siamese twins. We in the audience are left to ponder who is the "real" freak.

The show is strongest at creating sympathy for the sisters, making vivid their dichotomy — one living for fame, the other for domesticity. Where it falters is in its fear of following up on its flirtation with the grotesque. It settles for soap-opera tears, when it should be showing us glimpses of a freak-show inferno. Opening with a seedy carnival barker (this show's version of Cabaret's emcee), it attempts to draw the audience into a world of sideshow depravity, singing "Come look at the freaks, come gape at the geeks! Come examine their aberrations, their malformations." Yet on stage, all that we see are a few fey chorus boys and some overweight types with funny hairdos, an assortment far less horrifying and bizarre than the people sitting in the audience.

Director Victoria Bussert thrives on choreographing the musical torments of the damned. If there's any repressed sexuality in the script, she'll make it flame like cherries jubilee. If there's a shred of leering irony, she'll make it explode like a Roman candle. She works with the firm but gentle whip of an accomplished dominatrix, applying just the right pressure to get new ecstasy out of old pros.

Russ Borski's sets and costumes are dusty bargain-basement American Gothic, like a moldy volume of Poe left too long in a damp basement. On that set, Gregory Violand, a Cleveland landmark who has been wowing Northeast Ohioans since they laid the foundation of the Terminal Tower, outdoes himself as a golden-voiced Svengali. Tossing notes about like a thunderbolt, he gives a performance as sturdy as an oak. If he gets any better, they'll have to erect a statue to him.

As the weepy twins, Carol Dunne and Sandra Simon replace Broadway's leather-lunged pop tarts with a brown-eyed, fawn-like delicacy, bringing to mind a beguiling fusion of Dorothy Gale caught in a twister and Alice Liddell in a distorted funhouse looking glass.

In a performance as debauched and terrifying as they come, Neal J. Pool is the desperate carnival boss. He rolls his demented baby blues and demands attention from the audience like a newborn greedily sucking milk from a teat, invoking the horrific vision of a Mickey Rooney/Robert Morse composite, doomed to spend eternity on the Kenley circuit playing Captain Andy. If this musical were half as frightening and uncompromising as his need for love, it would already have achieved a certain kind of cult status.

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