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An Uneven Examination of Human Curiosity and Empathy in 'Side Show' at Blank Canvas Theatre 

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Photo by Andy Dudik

Freaks have always been with us, from the old days when there were traveling freak shows to today, when we are all invited to, "Let our freak flags fly!" Yes, humans who exhibit physical oddities of one sort or another seem to be endlessly fascinating.

And that human curiosity about those who are different from us—and thus, exactly the same as us—is brought to the forefront in Side Show. This musical is a re-worked version of the original, and it features some lush music by Henry Krieger along with book and lyrics by Bill Russell.

The Blank Canvas Theatre production is a mixed bag. Often, the efforts at this small theater in the West 78th Street Studios have an overall gloss of smooth professionalism, thanks to the careful artistic direction of Patrick Ciamacco. That is one reason why the theater has developed such a large and faithful following.

In Side Show, however, there"s a lack of that gloss under Ciamacco' direction. While the singing ranges from competent to very good, the acting in some major roles and a lot of minor roles is rather amateurish. The result is a play that limps to its two-and-a-half hour finish line.

The play is based on the true story of conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who played the carnival and vaudeville circuit during the Depression. Literally joined at the hip, they became minor stars in the entertainment firmament. The sisters eventually starred in two cheapie movies, Freaks and Chained for Life, which inevitably were featured in — you guessed it — double bills.

It's a good thing that two of the best actors on stage inhabit these characters, since the twin girls are involved in the vast majority of the songs. While the twins often send out matching signals as they trill happy ditties, they clearly have different personalities when off stage.

As the ambitious and cynical Daisy, Becca Ciamacco deploys a snarky little lip curl and a stare that could stop a truck. Meanwhile, shy and retiring Violet is played with a tender touch by Stephanie Harden. These two performers make the most of their many songs, reaching wonderful heights in "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and the perfectly conflicted duet, "Stuck With You/Leave Me Alone."

A couple show biz types, Terry and Buddy, appear on the scene to free the Hilton sisters from the clutches of the brutal and sinister side-show manager called Sir (John J. Polk), and they usher the girls into stardom on the Orpheum circuit.

But Joel Fenstermaker as talent scout Terry, and Ian Jones as the ambiguously gay vocal and dance coach Buddy, aren't up to their tasks. Each sings acceptably well, but they never create characters that extend beyond the emotion of the line in their mouth at the time.

In the role of Jake, the African-American member of the troupe who falls in love with Violet, Daryl Kelley also sings with some power and passion, especially in the evocative "You Should Be Loved." But his acting is frequently tentative, and this hesitancy extends throughout the ensemble.

There are romantic stories spun around the sisters and Terry, Buddy and Jake. But since the male characters never really come alive, the poignancy of those lost and sham loves don't land with the impact they should.

With a couple of exceptions, the freaks that surround the twins — the Bearded Lady, the Human Pincushion, the Tattooed Lady (yes, that was "freakish" back then) —are not fully realized characters either. They're just people who stand around like department store mannequins decked out in funny costumes and weird makeup. As a result, the pacing of the show often sags between songs.

It is good to hear that the orchestra, under the baton of music director Anthony Trifiletti, manages not to drown out the singers, as has happened frequently in the past at BCT. This is quite an achievement given the small confines and challenging acoustics of the space.

Remarkably, the twins lived to the age of 60, working in a grocery store at the end to support themselves. But those later years are not covered by the play, and that's a shame since there would likely be some interesting emotional material to mine as the women spent their declining years still attached to one another. It's an existence most of us can only regard in wonderment.

Some of the actual unpleasant details are swept away. The Hiltons were found dead in their home and it was determined that Daisy died first and Violet followed, two to four days later.

As it is, the conclusion of the show is bracingly realistic, and Ciamacco and Harden carry it off well. As for the rest of the cast, they need to find their characters' individual freak flags and give the lead duo the support they deserve.

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