Sadly, people who are different haven’t always been treated kindly by our society. This is largely true of the Hilton sisters, a pair of conjoined twins that were born in the early twentieth century. These very real women get a musical adaptation of their story in “Side Show,” the latest show from the Wildwood Summer Theatre Company, now playing at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda until July 20th.
…I walked away from this production very impressed…
Wildwood Summer Theatre is an incredibly unique local company that is almost entirely comprised of young people from the ages of 14-25. This includes everything from the producer of each show, to the entire pit orchestra. The non-profit was started all the way back in 1965 when a group of high school students wanted to put on a summer production but could not find an adult sponsor. They decided to move forward on their own, and their legacy has now lasted more than 50 years spanning more than 60 productions.
The show opens on a sideshow in rural Texas, with representatives like the bearded lady (Briana Downs ), the dog-faced boy (Jacob Gross), a fortune teller ( Emma Higgins), the Geek ( Daniel LaMond), the three-legged man (Chris Deriquito ), the lizard man (Judah Canizares), Venus de Milo (Aiko Perez), half man/half woman (Jacob Young), tattooed woman (Becca Haven), the Cossack (Evie Graham), and the human pin cushion (Kana Seiki). The menacing “Sir” (Sam Intrater) is in charge, and opens the show by telling the audience to “Come Look at the Freaks.”
However, the star attraction of the freak show comes later; two beautiful Siamese twins with angelic singing voices. Daisy (Katie Gerard) and Violet (Jenna Barbieri ) may be conjoined twins, but their personalities, hopes, and dreams couldn’t be more different. Daisy is gregarious and wants to be a star, but Violet is timid, and only wants a simple, normal life. They catch the eye of Terry Connor, (Randy Stull) who along with his choreographer Buddy Foster (Josh Beede), make the girls an offer to escape the freak show for good and headline Vaudeville. Their bodyguard and friend Jake (Ivan Walks) insist on coming along to look after the girls. It’s all they ever dreamed of; fame for Daisy, and a budding romance for Violet, but can the dream be trusted? Will the girls find what they desire, or is a normal life too good to be true?
“Side Show” had two rather brief stints on Broadway in 1997 and 2014, and helped to launch the career of Broadway darling Alice Ripley. Due to the show’s subject matter and unique music, it is not heavily performed in the community theatre world, so this is an excellent opportunity to check it out.
This production’s success hangs very heavily on the performance of the two female leads since it is their story and they are at the center of nearly every scene. This reviewer is happy to report that Gerard and Barbieri are more than up to this task. These two absolutely shined, both individually and as a pair. Their voices were not only individually exceptional but blended perfectly in the blockbuster duets “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You.” They were able to effectively strike their own character traits as well as demonstrating collective movements and mannerisms that marked them as sisters, even without being connected. They are the heart of this show and I walked away from this production very impressed with their performances.
There are also some strong supporting performances in this show as well. Stull presents a conflicted man who finds himself for once in a situation he can’t talk his way out of. He’s in love, but is that enough? Stull’s performance of “Private Conversation” deftly shows this conflict within himself, as well as putting his impressive vocals on display.” Beede also turns in an impressive performance as another man struggling with internal conflict. He loves Violet, but there is a shadow looming over their relationship. Beede shows different sides of his character in the vastly different in tone “Stuck With You,” and “Buddy’s Confession.” The former allows Beede to showcase his excellent voice and some charming dance moves, the latter allows him to flex his emotional depth for this character. Finally, Walks also portrays a man conflicted, but in a different way. While he loves these girls he has sworn to protect, the love he feels for one of them has begun to deepen, and it pains him to see her fall for someone else. Walks stands out on “You Should Be Loved,” where he puts it all on the line for the woman he loves.
Another notable aspect of this show was the costumes. It is never easy costuming a period piece, especially when the two female leads essentially need to have matching (and connected) costumes throughout. However, Keira DiGaetano does a fantastic job, not only with the two leading ladies but also outfitting a complete freak show- quite a challenge. Katie Miller also is to be commended for a great set; the multiple levels and open concept allow one stage to fit the many settings of the show without lengthy scene changes, which helps the pacing of the show immensely. It is also impressive to note that the full pit orchestra that accompanied the show was also made up of students from 14-25 (music direction by Margot Cohen). Director Zach Harris did an effective job on a challenging piece of theatre and has my congratulations.
Advisory: Due to some adult themes and language, this show is recommended for audiences 14 and older.
Running Time: Approximately 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.