BWW Review: SIDE SHOW Delivers A Spirited Performance Worthy of a Packed Run
Manila, Philippines--It's a fitting irony that Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group commences its season with "Side Show," a relatively untapped musical in contemporary theater canon. It's a gutsy show, flaunting with unabashed elan the grim underbelly of circus entertainment.
An entrancing opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks," is all the reminder you need to perceive a scathing reality beyond the confines of the theatre walls.
One could argue that today's populist governance in certain corners of the world is driven by a cast of certifiable freaks in elected office. In that regard, at least, this timely revival--with music by Henry Krieger and book/lyrics by Bill Russell--holds a mirror that mocks the real-life circus performed by a swath of current ne'er-do-wells.
It bears mentioning a significant difference, though: the stage characters' flaws are merely skin-deep, and they share a redeeming quality absent from many a freak in high places, which is a heart of gold.
"Side Show" is an underrated jewel. Atlantis Theatrical stages a revised book that clarifies a piece of history yet remains rife with moments of dashed dreams and unrequited affection. It is sustained by a compassionate heart, cradling every scene that begs for emotional justice (director Steven Conde is clearly attuned to this necessity). From the dank circus tents to the ephemeral, glitzy lights of vaudeville, the story is magnified by a gorgeous musical score that paints an arc of the human struggle, punctuated by a few soaring principal solos.
The solid cast at Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium delivers a spirited performance worthy of a packed run. Atlantis Theatrical has always been reliable in putting together the city's preeminent musical theater productions, and "Side Show" is no exception.
The plot hinges on the journey of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the main attraction of the circus sideshow managed by an abusive and enterprising curmudgeon, curtly addressed as Sir. It is based on the true story of the Hilton twins, whose shared life was marked by exploitation at the hands of those who found a lucrative value in their physical anomaly.
Without a doubt, the production's greatest achievement is the remarkable casting of the Hilton twins. Talent is abundant between these two stars--and while Gab Pangilinan (Daisy) and Kayla Rivera (Violet) might be easy to tell apart off the stage, there's no denying the herculean effort of those involved in manifesting their synergistic performance. The women are a marvel to behold--they look alike, they move in sync, and they harmonize with ineffable perfection. You can almost imagine them growing up together.
By contrast, the twins' male counterparts are a fitful variation of impulses. It's possibly written that way, but at this stage of development, Terry and Buddy (Markki Stroem and David Ezra, respectively) have an uphill dash to match the twins' focus and authenticity. (I'm sure it doesn't help to repeat a stage business that fails to sell in the first place--i.e. brazen smoking of an unlit cigarette.) Textual imbalance notwithstanding, it behooves an actor to stay grounded in a singular objective. Until the scene becomes a function of a character affecting (or infecting) "the other," it's no more than the sophomoric attempt of an earnest actor working for himself. Not a cause for alarm, certainly; both performers are promising actors with outstanding vocal chops who have a shot at enhancing their characters' chemistry along the way.
On a relative note, Arman Ferrer is powerful in his rare laconic role as Jake/Cannibal King. As Jake, much is conveyed in his silent task of overseeing and protecting the twins, and his profound love for Violet is felt across the halls with a mere turn of the head. His physicality is matched by a robust baritone that finds its best medium in the song, "The Devil You Know."
Perhaps the theater world's big surprise this season is the introduction of Wency Cornejo as a theater actor. Best known for his legendary pop singing and songwriting, he nabs the opportunity to play an impossibly difficult character for a novice thespian. As the sneaky, old circus proprietor intent on intimidating his workers into submission, Cornejo's Sir is a grizzled and hardened shadow of a man who attempts to remain fierce in his slurred speech and in his beaten gait. He's obviously done some serious research.
The deft and agile ensemble provides some of the show's most energetic highlights. It's easy to assume the 12-member supporting cast as having as much fun in the shadow of principal roles, given the chance to shift multiple characters and switch costumes in the blink of an eye. A few notable performances should be mentioned: Ring Antonio as a towering fortune teller, Vien King as Half and Half, and Luis Marcelo as the Geek. King and Marcelo are also part of a superb five-man, jazz-dance ensemble at the beginning of Act 2. Choreographer Cecile Martinez has done a thorough job of maximizing her dancers' skill to execute a vision appropriate to the era.
A show that suggests visual pizzazz needs a technical support that matches the vast talent on stage. Kudos to Lawyn Cruz for the tall and functional unit set, made to appear versatile through a series of creative lighting choices; thanks to Jonjon Villareal's astute lighting design. Odelon Simpao's costume design is a nostalgic foray into a colorful era otherwise made distant by black-and-white photography. Act 2 creates its best ambiance with its vibrant, colorful garb, transporting this viewer's imagination to a credible rendition of a live vaudeville act.
Without Broadway's luxury of several preview performances, the opening weekend of a major production can expose certain flashes of technical weakness. We expect the company to self-regulate the obvious kinks---like the microphone feedback from the Hilton girls downstage, the occasional sharp passing tones in the pit's horn section, and the subtle timing of an actor's speech going into a song (three seconds are much too long to wait for that first note).
All things considered, "Side Show" is a neatly organized narrative about messy lives in a Dickensian setting. But with all the dubious implications of living in a circus, the story delivers an uplifting message of grit and perseverance in the face of dire consequences. It's a story that resonates with anyone who has ever dared to love and to be loved regardless of one's perceived self-worth. No sight is repulsive in the eyes of a lover--and with Atlantis Theatrical as the producer, this circus is a thing of beauty.
"Side Show" plays at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium (4F RCBC Plaza, Ayala Ave. cor. Gil Puyat Ave., Makati City) now through September 23.
Buy tickets (P2,000 to P4,000) from TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Atlantis Theatrical Entertertainment Group