Come Look at the Freaks in “Side Show”

The newly “minted” Utah Repertory Theater Company (Utah Rep) launches with a marvelous adaptation of Russel & Krieger’s Side Show. I say adaptation, because where Side Show was originally written as an operetta, Producer/Director Johnny Hebda has successfully adopted it to a musical, bringing in spoken dialogue where normally there would have been just song.

Side Show is the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, who eked out their lives as a San Antonio side show attraction. They’re discovered by vaudevillian, Buddy Foster, who sees them as “the next big thing” for the vaudeville stage, so he invites theatrical agent Terry Connor to see them. Terry also sees potential in the twins, but is blocked by the side show’s “boss”. They are forced to train with Buddy in secret and then are finally able to break free of the side show (in a very heart breaking number) and seek their dreams on the stage.

I won’t spoil the final scene for you, but I do want to praise Hebda for its originality and relevance. I smiled as I saw the artistry behind it, and was genuinely moved. It was a beautiful moment in it’s stark and frank message.

The show is made up of an ensemble cast of talented actors, who go from playing side show freaks to reporters, vaudevillians, New York snobs, and an entire host of various roles. Each gave solid performances, regardless of where they were placed, and that gave the show a true repertory feel, which I guess is the whole point of Utah Rep.

Standing out in this ensemble are the stars of the show, Angela Jeffries (Violet) and Adrien Swenson (Daisy), the Hilton Sisters. These two ladies brought us laughter and broke our hearts as we experienced their lives, joys, and sorrows. Rather than having the actresses actually joined with a single costume or other apparatus, it was left to Angela and Adrien to stay together in their blocking. This was so effective, that in speaking with fellow audience members afterwards they were surprised that the costumes weren’t one piece –the illusion was so perfectly executed. Yet despite being restricted by their movements and being literally joined at the hip, Jeffries and Swenson conveyed so much emotion and gave so much on stage that it was treat to watch them.

Also standing out in a heartbreaking and powerful role was Cooper Howell, as Jake (the Canibal King). Howell’s performance was so riveting and nuanced, I was pleased when the script kept his character with the girls as they left the side show and let him travel with them. Howell made such interesting choices by inserting laughs and other non syllabic noises in unusual places. That not only made his character more compelling to watch, but those choices also gave us glimpses into who he was and where he was coming from. It’s rare to see an actor in a community production stand out like this, and Howell made it work beautifully.

Taylor Eliason as Buddy was rock solid in his portrayal, delivering a confident and believable performance. His quiet commitment to the part spoke volumes on his face and voice. His first love for Violet and then his fear surfacing were very real, and despite his betrayal, you felt sorry for him more than disliking him.

I wish I could say the same for Aleksndr Arteaga’s performance as Terry. I wanted to either like him or hate him, but he lacked the basic charm that Terry’s role seemed to call for. Because of this his line deliveries either came off as ungenuine or flat and he frankly seemed just like a very young actor playing a role too mature for him. Where he did stand out was in his singing. Arteaga has a strong voice, and the emotion he conveyed in his solo showed that he does have the necessary emotional range, he just needs to find that in his spoken lines.

Dana Anquoe’s costumes were great, for the most part. The twins looked beautiful in all of their dresses, and the side show characters looked fantastic and accurate. I would have liked to have seen maybe some form of tattooing on Jake, particularly since he seems to be playing a “Fiji” Canibal, but that idea may be unrealistic for the production.

Unfortunately, because I was searching for something in Arteaga’s “Terry”, his inconsistent costuming stood out to me. Being a tall and not skinny actor, myself, I know how difficult it is to costume someone who isn’t in the ideal size range of the theatre, and his costumes showed that –particularly his tuxedo in the New Years scene. Where Jake and Buddy looked sharp and dapper in tuxes and starched shirts,  Terry looked frumpy in an ill-fitting jacket, standard white dress shirt and mis-matching pants that had just had their hems unpicked to fit him. I can understand the frustration of thrift-store costuming for tall men, but these were obvious problems, particularly when I was searching for some reason to care about this character.

One other costuming issue that is easily fixed were the scuffed-up tap shoes Buddy wears in one of his stage numbers. A can of black shoe polish is all that’s needed. Normally, I don’t pay attention to the shoes on stage, but when they’re tap dancing, you tend to look at their feet.

The staging is interesting for this production. The Echo Theatre in Provo is wider than it is deep, and is built for a thrust. That leaves a space not much deeper than a proscenium’s apron (that part of the stage that’s in front of the first curtain, for those not theatrically trained). Likewise the audience doesn’t sit deep either, so although that lends to intimacy, the sheer width of the stage can lose a scene very quickly. Fortunately, for the most part, Hebda’s blocking kept us in the scenes and didn’t force too much head-turning to see something happening. There was an issue where performers would hold position too long, with their backs to one of the three audiences and that blocked us from seeing the entire scene. This happened twice with Terry’s character in an early scene and once with the sisters. A little more movement could solve this issue, easily.

The seating is uncomfortable. With long rows of seats across the front with no real breaks in between chairs, and no leg room to speak of. It left me feeling very claustrophobic in the capacity crowd I sat with at the matinee. I stood on the stage through most of intermission, as the people around me seemed disinclined to get up and move, and was grateful the second act was much shorter. I’m not certain if there is an easy way for the Echo to fix this problem without sacrificing a large number of their seats, but then again, as those around me didn’t seem bothered by the cramped seating, this may have just been an issue solely on my part.

Overall, despite my few exceptions, I will say that this show is well worth seeing. You should make whatever arrangements you need to get to Provo and see this amazing production before it ends. And make sure you arrive a little early for their pre-show side-show starring Elias “Lefty” Caress and Celest McCulley. They perform a wince-inducing stunt show that will definitely warm you up for what is an astounding production.

Utah Rep presents SIDE SHOW at The Echo Theatre in Provo, Jan 18 – Feb 2. Tickets are available at the door and through ezticketlive.com

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