A Twinning Combination – a review of “Side Show”

By Nick Mitchell, ‘Burgh Vivant

In the Roaring ‘20s and early 1930s conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton toured the US and UK. They took their song and dance routine from seedy novelty shows, through vaudeville, all the way to the silver screen. If that story doesn’t scream Broadway, nothing does! “Side Show the Musical” was born.

Split Stage Productions tackles “Side Show” with a bold perspective. Now in their fourth season, the Westmoreland County based company has made it their mission to produce important shows that other troupes in the region have found reasons to avoid.

The key to “Side Show” is the casting of the twins.  Daisy (Rori Aiello Mull) and Violet (Victoria Buchtan) bring charm, sass, and vulnerability the second they make their entrance. In fact, our first look at the twins is the single biggest risk/reward of this production. Traditionally, two actresses similar in size and type are cast, then costumes and make-up take over to make the twins as identical as possible. The audience journey then becomes one of seeing the conjoined twins emerge as unique individuals. Director Jim Scriven has chosen to turn this concept on its head. Ms. Mull and Ms. Buchtan are not identical. More than the obvious height disparity, they play Daisy and Violet from the onset as sisters with different goals, styles, and feelings. The journey then becomes one of seeing each sister come to embrace their very tangible unity. Fortunately for the audience, one thing the actresses do have in common is a wealth of talent.

The linked ladies are supported by their romantic interests, Terry (Tyler Brignone) and Jake (Brady D. Patsy). Brignone plays talent agent Terry Connor with the look and air of a smarmy game-show host. Brignone has a powerful tenor voice perfectly showcased in the song “Private Conversation.” Patsy’s haunting rendition of “You Should Be Loved” melted even this cold-hearted reviewer. Rounding out the love triangle (square… pentagon…dodecahedron?) is Zakk Mannella as Buddy who adds the much-needed vaudevillian facet to the show.

The rest of the cast of Freaks and Roustabouts are led by Joe York as the exploitative side show owner, Sir. From Fortune Teller, to Bearded Lady, to Dog Boy, all seem to enjoy their roles and create memorable characters. As the fused femme’s story unfolds, these cast members fill the roles in the sister’s life. Because these performers created such singular “Freaks,” some of their later appearances as different characters can be a bit distracting.

The show is mounted at the Apple Hill Playhouse. The location lends itself to a carnival feel, complete with fire-juggling (the fire-juggler is part of an unannounced pre-show display). The utilitarian set, while adequate, lacked the polish displayed in much of the rest of the show, however Bill Jacka’s colorful period projections pulled focus in all the right ways.

This is the first local production of the recent revival of the Krieger/Russell musical which rewrote much of the show. The goal was to bring the real-life history of the Hilton’s into focus. It mostly works. An early flashback runs a little long, and aficionados of the original will miss “Tunnel of Love.” Ultimately though, the story wins.

Near the end of Act two, the twins beautifully and un-ironically sing “I Will Never Leave You” to each other. It’s simple, honest, and true. Such moments, images, and melodies are frequent in this production and, true to form, they really will never leave you.

You can see Split Stage’s Side Show through October 15th. For ticket info visit here.

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