Performers, costumes and set dazzle audience at ‘Side Show’

Posted Feb. 18, 2009, at 7:38 p.m.

“Come see God’s mistakes

The freaks God forsakes

Take a look at the monster babies

Dog men with rabies

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A bride of snakes

‘Side Show’”

“Come look at the freaks, just pennies for peeks,” the carnival barker calls out to the crowd in the opening number of the musical “Side Show.” The bearded lady, the woman with four arms, the man with the skin of a reptile and a fortuneteller, of course, fill the aisles of Hauck Auditorium as they head to the stage to join the show’s songbirds — Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twin sisters.

The sisters were real people, born in 1908 in England to an unwed barmaid. They literally were joined at the hip, sharing bone and circulatory systems. Violet and Daisy also were attractive women and fine singers. They began appearing in freak shows as children in Britain and the U.S. before moving on to vaudeville and film as adults.

“Side Show,” with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Kreiger, had a one-year run on Broadway beginning in 1997. It opened last week at the University of Maine in Orono under the direction of Sandra Hardy.

Russell and Kreiger had enough material from the Hilton sisters’ lives to write three or four shows, but they really only had enough quality music and songs for a 90-minute one-act — not the two-act, more-than-two-hour show they wrote. They also beat the audience again and again with their theme that we are all freaks longing to be loved.

But nearly all of the imperfections in Hardy’s production are in the script and structure of the show. Her production of “Side Show” is practically flawless from her talented performers to the eye-dazzling set, lights and costumes to the excellent 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Daniel Williams.

Abby Coulter, a senior, and Hannah Kramer, a freshman, are simply stunning as Daisy and Violet Hilton. Each woman’s voice has a distinct quality yet they are capable of beautifully blending together. Both Coulter and Kramer deliver great passion and deep pathos in their many songs but it’s especially effective when they sing “Who will be part of my circus? Who will love me as I am?” at the end of Act One.

The actresses give their characters distinct personalities. Daisy is the extrovert who wants fame and fortune while Violet is shy and longs for a quiet life away from the limelight. Somehow, Coulter and Kramer manage to convey that the women are bound together by more than the physical.

Dustin Sleight, a senior, and Adam Blais, a sophomore, are the twin’s love interests Terry Connor and Buddy Foster. These also are the men who help them move from the sideshow to Broadway to Hollywood.

Sleight’s fireplug build makes him a man born to wear a double-breasted suit and fedora. He’s comfortable in them and his character Terry’s skin. Sleight delicately walks the thin line between exploiting and supporting the Hilton women. The actor is at his best as he struggles to deal with his unexpected feelings for Daisy and how to truly be alone with her.

Blais’ Buddy is a naive opportunist and seems totally unaware that he is taking advantage of the women. He tries to love Violet and even asks her to marry him but backs out in the end. Blais is a wonderful singer and his beanpole frame is a great visual contrast to Slight’s broad build. He does not, however, mine the depths of Buddy as deeply as he might have.

Greg Middleton plays strongman Jake, the one man who truly accepts the twins for themselves. His muscular build and shaved head create the classic image of the athlete who wound up in the circus. Middleton looks and acts the part but his voice is not up to the task demanded of the songs, especially in “You Should Be Loved,” his second-act duet with Violet.

Technically, everything about Hardy’s production is perfect. Dan Bilodeau’s revolving set piece and background posters work beautifully. They, along with the cages that never really disappear, are constant reminders that no matter how hard they try, Violet and Daisy can never leave the sideshow. Kurt Khrone’s lighting design heightens and intensifies all of Bilodeau’s work.

The true star of the show, however, is Frank Campa’s costumes. Now a Brooks resident, he worked on Broadway and taught at Rutgers University before moving to Maine in 2004. The twins have at least a dozen costumes that range from gaudy showgirl costumes to evening gowns to everyday dresses. Every outfit is delightful. The freaks are as garish and gaudy as they should be.

In the end, Hardy, her phenomenal artistic and technical team along with the talented cast cannot totally overcome the flaws inherent in Russell and Kreiger’s show. This production of “Side Show,” however, is worth seeing because whether we admit it or not, we all want to “see the underside” and have our “curiosity satisfied.”

So, “come look at the freaks, just pennies for peeks.”

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