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Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW
Arden Guice, Macy Medford and Melissa Tormene

Macy Medford and Arden Guice may only be college students, but their performances as Violet and Daisy Hilton, the heroines of Side Show - the iconic musical by Bill Russell, Henry Krieger and Bill Condon that debuted on Broadway some 20 years ago - in Belmont University Musical Theatre's production that runs for just one weekend, are nothing less than a professional triumph for each young woman. Thoroughly committed and startlingly focused, Medford and Guice perform an oftentimes tricky, always challenging, task in order that the two young women effectively become their characters, ensuring the musical packs an emotional wallop delivered straight to the collective heart of its audience, while showcasing the evolution of a musical theatre program at the Nashville university, which over the years has gained a national reputation as the training ground of the next generations of Broadway stars yet to be.

If 2018's Side Show offers any barometer of future accomplishments for both the program and its students, then BUMT will continue to burnish its sterling reputation well into the years to come, with this particular production joining a long list of shows which spotlight the program and its impressively talented students by putting their strengths on prominent display.

That consideration, however, comes after several hours of introspection. Immediately following the show's final curtain, audience members are far more likely to be considering their own response to the stories told so evocatively by the Russell/Krieger/Condon musical. Sometimes maligned by critics for its broad strokes, formulaic attributes and pedestrian lyrics - the first Broadway run of Side Show ran for just 91 performances in 1997-98, resulting in four Tony Award nominations and the first-ever shared nod for best actress in a musical for Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley - the show has concurrently been praised for its subject matter and the courage of its creative team to focus on characters heretofore unseen in musical theater.

The heartrending story of Daisy and Violet Hilton works beautifully on levels both empathic and visceral. It's an entertaining, if somewhat lurid, tale of two women who long for a day when they are no longer the objects of ridicule and ignorant fascination and instead are "like everyone else." It's an involving story of greed and exploitation writ large on an expansive stage, yet it touches the heart on terms far more intimate and personal. In fact, if you hear Macy Medford's plaintive expression of Violet Hilton's desire "to be like everyone else..." in the show's earliest moments and you don't have an immediate physical manifestation of emotional response, you are either distracted, daft or unfeeling. Otherwise, you'd be like me, choking back tears five minutes into the two hours of rapturous musical theater transportation to another world.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW
The Hudson Snyder-led cast of Side Show

What sets this production apart from so many others found in the canon of American musical theater is that connection to the show's protagonists that audiences experience over the course of a couple of hours in a darkened auditorium. Violet and Daisy, as played so winningly by Medford and Guice, are presented as authentic and multi-dimensional - sure, they're spiffed up and put on display like so many sideshow oddities of their era - but Russell, Krieger and Condon allow them to speak for themselves. How could you not be moved by that? I have no plausible explanation if your reaction differs from mine.

And, what with the memorable score (in all its manipulative glory, truth be told), your personal response to Side Show is heightened even if you are seeing it play out on the stage before you for the very first time (possibly even more profound if that is the case) or, if you're like me, for the fifth time. The notable efforts of director David Shamburger, musical director Jo Lynn Burks, choreographer Anna Perry, production manager Nancy Allen and assistant director Erica Aubrey, along with their collaborative team of designers and technicians, guarantee you'll have a strong reaction to Side Show, regardless of your depth of knowledge of its subject matter.

Like other shows of its ilk, Side Show gained a cult following, its fans becoming ardent supporters and rabid advocates for continued productions - ultimately leading to its 2014-15 revival (interestingly, the first run closed on January 3, 1998, while the revival closed on January 4, 2015 - 46 years to the date the sisters are said to have died alone and nearly forgotten in North Carolina in 1969) that failed to score any Tony Award nominations, but which was rewarded with attention being paid by both the Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards. The revival helped to once again spike interest in the musical and longtime fans of Side Show were able to see a far different show from the one they remembered from the original, and the ranks of its devotees continued to grow, bringing legions of new fans to its mesmerizing and intriguing tale of a pair of conjoined twins born in England who became stars of the American sideshow, vaudeville and, ultimately, burlesque circuits before their precipitous downfall from popularity left them working in a North Carolina grocery store when their manager abandoned them penniless and without any means to support themselves in 1961.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW The story of Violet and Daisy is a compelling one (most recently in the acclaimed 2012 documentary Bound by Flesh from filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis), to be certain, and what the revival script does far better than the original (admittedly, I was a fan of the show before many members of the BUMT cast were even born) is to paint a more detailed portrait of the lives of the sisters up to the moment we meet them in Side Show. It's still somewhat sketchy: this is a Broadway musical, after all, more likely to focus on the highlights of their story and to create composite characters and condensing life-altering events to the briefest of moments in a panoply of colorful bits and pieces utilizing musical theater tropes.

For example, the revival (the script mounted by BUMT), which includes the addition of new material from Condon in order to flesh out the background of the Hilton sisters (who briefly were part of an act with Bob Hope in the late 1920s, which is a testament to their notoriety), provides a pastiche of scenes from the twins' early life in order to explain their horrific childhood, completely awash in sordid details of abuse, neglect and exploitation: the girls' unwed mother essentially sold them to a woman who subsequently married the man known as either "The Boss" (as in the original) or as "Sir" (in the revival) who brought them to America to further exploit them on different shores (the script of the revival suggests Harry Houdini may have played a role in the decision to make the move to America) after a particularly repulsive "career" on various stages and in a series of increasingly seedier venues on the continent. As a point of reference, the girls were "exhibited" for public consumption since they were toddlers, having made their first "professional" appearance in their native England when they were three years old.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW
The Riley Henderson-led cast of Side Show

Condon's revival script also only hints at the supposed homosexuality of the character of Buddy Foster, the man who marries Violet in a spectacle of romantic revelry and poor taste at the Texas Centennial celebration, replete with an audience of 60,000 onlookers and gawkers who filled the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to capacity in 1936 (give or take a few years, the musical's depiction of chronology is rather fluid), while in reality both sisters married gay men. Violet and her husband, James Moore, stayed married in name only for ten years, while Daisy and Harold Estep - who performed under the stage name of Buddy Sawyer - were married for just 10 days in 1941. The musical's assertion that multiple states refused to allow conjoined twins to marry partners is absolutely true to life.

Thanks to the unchecked repellant and prurient interests of a public seemingly fascinated by "freaks of nature," Daisy and Violet Hilton and others like them, who suffered from physical abnormalities and anomalies, could sell tickets for whatever huckster who would promise them room and board (however basic and meager that actually might be) for poor, unfortunate souls unable to provide for their themselves. It's a shameful and shocking (perceived through the lens of the far more enlightened and cognizant times in which we live today) part of our shared human history which, for the Hilton Sisters, culminated in their first film appearance in Tod Browning's film Freaks in 1932, at the peak of their so-called "popularity" as media darlings of the day and which is used in the musical to frame its examination of their plight (Patrick Dunleavy effectively assays the role of Browning in the play).

The revival's efforts to shed light on the sisters' background, however well-intentioned and elucidating it might be, succeeds in creating a far more evocative tale about the sisters in the context of the first third of the 20th century. It reorders some of the original musical numbers, eliminates others which are replaced by new ones, making the story easier to follow and ensuring characters are more accessible and engaging for contemporary audiences who view them from a decidedly modern-day vantage point.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW Medford and Guice (the roles are played in the tradition of BUMT casting by Maddi Kilgore and Maggie Hutchison in half of the show's performances in Massey Concert Hall on the Belmont campus), by virtue of their casting as the characters at the very center of the story - they provide not only the show's heart, but its very soul - carry much of the show's payload, delivering its message of acceptance of those destined to live life at its seedier, more lurid edges. And it's that which makes Side Show such a provocative and incisive product of contemporary musical theater, and which explains why the show is followed with such fervor by fans who find themselves living on the margins of life, looking in and longing to be accepted, and the very differences that prevent them from being a part of the majority instead are celebrated in the process.

Side Show's entreaties to its audiences speak eloquently to the state of current affairsin the world, in general, and in the United States, in particular, coming at a time when its impact might be more deeply felt.

Medford and Guice work well together - playing conjoined twins creates unique challenges, both physical and otherwise, than does playing a musical theater archetype like Laurie Williams, Sally Bowles, Millie Dillmount or Wendla Bergmann even - to create the unique bond shared by twins. The fact Violet and Daisy are conjoined (one of the my favorite moments comes during the wedding sequence when they are marching toward the altar for the farcical ceremony and Violet asks Daisy if can hear what she's thinking and Daisy respons "as loud as if you were speaking" - it's the briefest of moments, but it exemplifies the girls' relationship and their reliance on each other for life and emotional sustenance and support) only adds to the creative and theatrical challenge. That Medford is shorter and smaller than Guice is effectively camouflaged by Ashley Wolfe's period costumes and some clever and deceptive examples of theatrical magic which allow two different young women to appear as identical twins. For example, Guice wears ballet slippers and Medford wears heels to even out the height difference.

Medford plays the more self-effacing Violet with the right amount of reticence and forthright command, allowing her character to remain somewhat overshadowed by her more effusive sister, even as she finds her own voice when the situation demands it. It's like traversing a razor's edge, and Medford's performance beautifully conveys the conflicting natures of Daisy with studied confidence. Similarly, Guice plays Daisy, the more forceful and flirtatious of the pair, with the resigned air of a more dominant sibling, conversely revealing a more playful nature that is masks the fact that she is as grounded as her sister and just as pragmatic.

To their credit, both Medford and Guice perform the pair's most beloved musical numbers with passion, delivering renditions of Act One's searing finale - "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" - and the second act's penultimate number "I Will Never Leave You" that left me breathless and awestruck. Their performances of the songs that comprise part of the vaudeville act of Violet and Daisy Hilton, including "Typical Girls Next Door" and "Stuck With You" (both added for the revival) are amusing, even if the songs are unimpressive (I miss the original's "Rare Songbirds on Display" for its spot-on representation of how the girls are used by unscrupulous men cashing in on their notoriety).

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW
Gabe Hoyer

Paired with Guice and Medford are Gabe Hoyer and Austin Querns (Chase Tucker and Lucas Beckett play opposite Hutchison and Kilgore) as Terry and Buddy, the two men who "save" the twins from the freak show and set them on the pathway to cataclysmic stardom as they endure the vagaries of celebrity. Hoyer, who last season gave a stunning performance as Tevye in the BUMT production of Fiddler on the Roof, creates another indelible portrayal that seems diametrically opposite that of the beloved Jewish dairyman in Imperial Russia. Hoyer's Terry is the ultimate manipulator, using his words and actions to achieve his own goals, with an inkling of genuine regard for what will happen to his new clients, pleading and cajoling with Daisy to undergo the potentially fatal operation to separate the twins in order his own desires be served. Hoyer unflinchingly plays the rather despicable character, exposing his ulterior motives with a controlled deception that belies his surface charm.

Querns effectively portrays his own character's conflicting emotions - Buddy seems sincere and genuine in his affections for Violet even as he dangles the character's relationship with fellow performer Ray (played by the always impressive Lucas Beckett in this iteration of Side Show) right in front of her - and in the process he delivers the dramatically charged performance we've long expected from him. He uses his estimable stage presence in so doing and easily telegraphs his character's inner turmoil throughout his performance.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW
Austin Querns

Playing Jake, the sisters' loyal friend and companion who first we meet as part of the sideshow's introductory and near-immersive musical number at the top of the show, Imari Thompson delivers a staggering vocal performance, resulting in thunderous ovations at the conclusion of each of his numbers. Thompson easily displays his character's devotion to the sisters with sincerity, while his love for Violet is expressed more passionately in "You Should Be Loved," and he leads an effective performance of "The Devil You Know" that's currently playing on a continuous loop in my brain.

Hudson Snyder is quite good as the despicable "Sir" (played by Riley Henderson in the alternate cast) who lords his control over the girls with churlish glee and he performs with a shocking and on-the-mark command of the stage that belies his youth and heralds a successful future for the talented young actor.

As various members of the sideshow's cast - Ryan Lynch (as the three-legged man), Brooks Bennett (riveting as the sympathetic Geek), Melissa Tormene (as the clarion-voiced fortune teller), Brooke Bucher (as Venus De Milo), Holden Hanna (as Dog Boy), Wyatt Roby (as Lizard Man), Ranae McIntyre and Ethan Pugh (as the curiously costumed Cossacks), Katelynn Fahrer (as the half man/half woman hermaphrodite), Liam Searcy (the human pin cushion), Tori Kocher (notable in what could be a throwaway role if given to someone of lesser skill), and Lauren Metzinger (as the tattooed girl) - director Shamburger has intelligently cast his capable students in roles well-suited to their skills (they easily move from one persona to the next, along with the rest of the show's ensemble, with grace), resulting in an ensemble populated with actors worthy of the lead roles to come for them in future productions. For example, Ginny Swanson grabs your attention as a bitchy society maven frequenting an especially tony New Year's Eve party and Henderson is all oily smarminess as Sir's attorney.

Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Startling Revival of SIDE SHOW As Harry Houdini, Bobby Hogan is well-cast, delivering some words of wisdom and inspiration to the Hilton sisters during a brief visit to them in England, and Ella Green makes the most of her brief moments as the girl's presumptive "Auntie."

Musical director and conductor Jo Lynn Burks and her musicians perform the score with consummate professionalism and the customary theatrical flair associated with her direction, while Anna Perry supplies the requisite steps that give some of the musical numbers a fillip of showbiz razzle-dazzle. Bob Welin's creative design provides the perfect settings for each scene and Thom Roberts' lighting ideally illuminates the proceedings, capturing the golden glow of memory and nostalgia with no small amount of artistry.

Side Show. Book and lyrics by Bill Russell. Music by Henry Krieger. Additional book material by Bill Condon. Directed by David Shamburger. Musical direction by Jo Lynn Burks. Choreography by Anna Perry. Presented by Belmont University Musical Theatre at Massey Concert Hall, Belmont University campus, Nashville. Through November 18.

From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner launched... (read more about this author)

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