See Gallery Players’ Evocative ‘Side Show’ Through March 18
Side Show, the Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, received its regional premiere in a handsome production at Gallery Players, directed by Ross Shirley.
The musical follows conjoined twins Daisy (Bailey Maholm) and Violet (Eryn Hollobaugh) Hilton. The audience watches their journey from one master to another: a traveling sideshow led by the imperious and sleazy Sir (Mark Schuliger) to the gentler-demeanor wheeling and dealing vaudeville promoter Terry Connor (Christopher Storer). On their way to the moral that the two sisters have to stick together, Connor delivers on his word to make them stars but reveals himself to be just another desperate, grasping hypocrite.
It’s difficult for a musical to deliver the surging, cathartic thrills most audiences come for and also have a core tone of melancholy. This production of Side Show excels at sticking that kind of tricky landing, again and again. Similar to the most well-known documentation of the Hilton sisters today, Tod Browning’s 1921 movie Freaks, Russell’s book and Shirley’s production accomplish this with genuine affection for these characters and warmth between them.
The acting and singing throughout are stellar. Eryn Hollobaugh’s shy, sweeter Violet, and Bailey Maholm’s more intense and open Daisy are great comic foils with a pathos that never indulges or invites pity. Their voices sparkle, careening from clever music-hall parodies like “Typical Girls Next Door” and “Stuck With You” into gut-wrenching belters like “Who Will Love Me As I Am.” Their fellow sideshow employees make the most of limited stage time, drawing out human beings from sketches. That ensemble boasts particularly good work from Ryan Jones’ “Half-Man/Half-Woman,” Sarah Santilli’s “Venus Di Milo,” Stephen Hanna’s “Geek” and Alex Landexter’s “Fortune Teller.”
Christopher Storer takes the simplistic savior-turned-devil character of Terry and turns him into something flesh and blood. We understand his desperation, and we sense the vibrating charisma that keeps buying him more chances and draws the Hilton sisters to him. His singing on songs like “A Private Conversation” shows layers of nuance and turmoil under the slick package. Sean Felder is devastating as Terry’s foil Buddy, a closeted gay dancer desperate to love Violet. Felder’s razor-sharp timing and physicality sell the vaudeville numbers like “Stuck With You” and “One Plus One Equals Three” but leave just enough ache.
Brandon Buchanan’s Jake, the one sideshow member brought along as a handler on the sisters’ journey to the top, almost walks away with the show. His intense, jazz-inflected “The Devil You Know” is the catchiest number in all of Side Show and he lights it on fire. His duet with Violet, “You Should Be Loved” didn’t leave a dry eye in the matinee I saw. He plays the long-suffering man in love with Violet with a similar lack of self-pity and a reserve that resonates with both his beloved and the show. It’s a heart-breaking performance not soon forgotten.
The most significant problems with Side Show are that it’s a little slow and a little too static. You feel all two hours and forty-five minutes (with intermission). Too often, swaths of the large cast assemble just to stand there while one to four people talk or sing. A little more physicality, especially around the edges, would go a long way. But, if you’re willing to put in the time, Side Show delivers classic musical pleasures that achieve sweetness without being saccharine.
Side Show runs through March 18 with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. on Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit columbusjcc.org.