BWW Review: Step Right Up! Brown/Trinity Rep Steals Spotlight with Sensational SIDE SHOW

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Theater world, take notice: The Brown/Trinity Rep M.F.A. Class of 2017 is a force to be reckoned with. Their staging of Side Show, under the direction of Ashley Teague, will more than hold its own against any professional production in the state. This effort impresses in every particular from casting and costuming to setting, dramatic pacing, and lighting. From curtain to curtain, this is theatrical storytelling at its finest.

Side Show is based on the true-life story of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. Their condition was exploited by profit-seeking "guardians" from the girls' formative years, but in the early 1930s, the sisters broke away from their abusive managers to earn their living on the vaudeville stage. The girls sang, danced, and were skilled musicians, and the public's fascination with the pair led to a measure of success and celebrity. But their acclaim in the spotlight did not translate into societal acceptance, and the girls' desire for a "normal" life with families of their own seemed a dream forever out of reach.

Sixty years later, Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) crafted a haunting and heartbreaking musical that respectfully honored the sisters' life story. Though Side Show did not attain blockbuster Broadway success either during its original run in 1997 or in its 2014 revival, both productions garnered critical acclaim and earned multiple award nominations. The show has enjoyed a second life on regional stages across the nation, and now Violet and Daisy's story comes to Providence through Brown/Trinity's vibrant and unforgettable staging.

The tone of the production is set immediately upon entering the performance space thanks to Anshuman Bhatia's spot-on scenery and lighting. Audience members pass through a set of ragged burlap curtains and into the seedy carnival ambiance of a sideshow. This performance plays in the round, and though fairy lights twinkle in a canopy looped above the main stage, shadows cloak the chain-link fencing, panels of rusted metal, and various bits of debris that frame the seating area. This wondrous world both intrigues and unsettles, just as the sideshow attractions themselves were intended to do.

Side Show's story unfolds through intense, character-driven material, and Teague polishes this production to touch every emotion. It is by turns horrifying and hopeful, uplifting and tragic. Even before the first scenes begin, the actors drift onto the stage in ill-fitting, drab undergarments and torn and stained union suits. They wander about, unnervingly disconnected from the audience and each other, staring sightlessly while making repetitive, compulsive motions. Then, as the players inhabit their roles, they don characters' personalities along with bits and pieces of costuming. Each hat or jacket suggests a variety of different personas, but no matter what new "skin" the characters wear, the raggedy garments below serve as a visible reminder that the uniformly "unnatural" behavior likewise sits just under a socially acceptable veneer.

Reviewers often have to pick and choose which cast members to single out for recognition, but it would be utterly remiss not to mention each of Side Show's talented performers by name. While the main action unfolds center stage, ensemble members remain in-character as vital parts of the storytelling from their places at the sidelines. Whether creating a chorus of menacing, resonant whispers that surrounds the audience or establishing the sideshow atmosphere by perching high on the metal staging, these actors pour their hearts into making this production shine.

Leading the cast are Rachel Clausen and Laura Lyman Payne as Violet and Daisy. Clausen and Payne bring the Hilton sisters to life with dignity and refinement. The women move through their scenes with the graceful, natural harmony expected from siblings long used to going through life as one body, and yet they balance the sisters' physical unison by clearly defining their individual personalities. Their musical numbers provide opportunities for a great range of performance styles, from the vaudeville-themed "We Share Everything" to the heartfelt sisterly pledge "I Will Never Leave You," and Clausen and Payne bring down the house with the first-act finale "Who Will Love Me as I Am?" The intimacy of the Pell Chafee Center invites the audience into the performance space, granting immediacy to the sisters' hopes and dreams as well as their loneliness and isolation.

Talent scout Terry Connor and song-and-dance man Buddy Foster recognize the sisters' potential and help them escape sideshow life, but the quartet's personal and professional relationships grow ever-more complicated as romance blossoms. Brad Wilson plays Buddy with an endearing sweetness and boundless optimism, not to mention lots of personality in his second-act spotlight number "One Plus One Equals Three." Jake Loewenthal brings suave charisma to Terry's entertainment-agent persona while also capturing the depths of his internal conflict over his passionate attraction to Daisy.

Matt Ketai wins every heart as the sisters' devoted friend, Jake. Ketai perfectly expresses Jake's guileless devotion and care for the girls, and the genuineness he brings to Jake's unrequited love for Violet produces one of the most poignant moments in the entire narrative. The petite Marina Morrissey is utterly mercenary as the sideshow's Boss. She packs boundless cruelty and manipulation into a tiny package, making the Boss a formidable opponent as she rules the so-called "freaks" with an iron hand. Morrissey so well establishes the Boss' voice, it has no course but to return to haunt Violet and Daisy in their times of rejection and self-doubt.

Much applause to Sinan Eczacibasi, Gwen Kingston, Maggie Mason, David Samuel, Chris Stahl, Will Turner, Lucy Van Atta, and Alec Weinberg. Their performances give depth and scope to this production of Side Show, making for a truly immersive storytelling experience. This ensemble breathes life into any number of characters including New York's pretentious high-society crowd and the brazen members of the press corps that hound Daisy and Violet. The group is especially fine in their portrayal of the sideshow "curiosities," well depicting the camaraderie of these outcasts and the unique personalities that make up their unconventional family.

Montana Blanco's costumes demonstrate great creativity. The Hilton sisters' vaudeville costumes glitter with 1930s flair and song-suited details - including literal birdcage hats for "Rare Songbirds on Display" - while the sideshow denizens' garb shows imagination and resourcefulness, from Dolly Dimples' balloon-filled frock to the Reptile Man's green quilted vest.

Side Show features a gorgeous score and the show's numbers flourish under the musical direction of Yan Li. A simple piano at center stage melds with the actors' vocal performances to create a lush, rich arrangement, while insightful sound design by Janie Bullard enhances the sense of a carnival environment.

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The Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Program presents Side Show through May 15, 2016 at the Citizens Bank Theater, Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire Street, Providence. General admission seats are $12 and discounts are available for seniors and students. Tickets may be purchased online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the Trinity Repertory Company's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI.

Photo by Mark Turek



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