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NewCityNet Double Trouble

By Ben Winters

MAY 22, 2000:  Why I Love The Chicago Theater Scene, Reason #212: When "Side Show" opens this week at Northlight, it will not be the first musical this season about a freak show.

That distinction goes to "Lobster Boy," the truly odd creation of writer Matthew Boresi and melodist Michael Watkins, produced by Calliope Productions at the Duncan YMCA back in September. "Lobster Boy" was a ragtag affair -- marred primarily by the fact that the title character and protagonist was a drunk and an asshole, claws-for-hands or no claws-for-hands -- but it did include some memorable moments. When Lobster Boy suggests to his wife that their friend the Amazing Blockhead could babysit for a few hours, Mrs. Lobster Boy retorts: "He can't watch the baby -- he hammers nails into his face!"

Like "Lobster Boy," "Side Show" is based on the true story of an American freak show, centering not on a half-man, half-crustacean (thank goodness they're not covering that old ground again) but on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who rose from side-show obscurity to vaudeville superstardom, and a short film career, in the 1930s. Joined at the base of the spine, at two weeks old, Daisy and Violet were sold by their mother to an unscrupulous manager who kept them essentially in slavery, making a small fortune off their musical ability and draw as a curiosity, until they escaped at age 23. Both twins married -- one for love, the other as a publicity stunt -- and quickly divorced. After their inevitable fade from the limelight, Daisy and Violet ended up working at a supermarket in North Carolina, where they would die in 1969.

Thirty years after the death of the Hilton sisters, their story was turned into -- what else? -- a Broadway musical. "Side Show," created by lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger, opened on September 19, 1997, at New York's Richard Rodgers Theater, and closed about twenty minutes later, despite garnering rave reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere. Audiences just didn't cotton to it, it seemed: Is it possible that a singin', dancin' lollapalooza about the life and times of conjoined twins who were terribly exploited came off as a little, well, exploitative?

Not so, says Joe Leonardo, the director tapped by Northlight chief BJ Jones when he made the rather audacious decision to mount "Side Show" as the theater's season closer. "The piece is extremely sensitive to them," says the director, "and to their knowledge that they are at times being used." In other words, "Side Show" trumps the possibility of exploitation by giving us -- along with all the glitter and sap of big production numbers -- a drama from the point of view of the exploited, proving in the process that things aren't always what they seem.

"Sometimes... [the sisters] are smart enough to use the system itself," says Leonardo. "And it's fascinating to watch... how they grow in confidence in dealing with society." From this point of view, it's the Hiltons who had the upper hand: Quickly comprehending the fascination of "regular" people with folks like them, they could make it a handsome living -- at the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom, Daisy and Violet were each pulling down $5,000 a week.

As with any musical, "Side Show" is necessarily something of a simplification ("Miss Saigon" isn't, you may be shocked to hear, an authoritative history of the war in Vietnam). Leonardo rightly classified it as a "rags to riches" story, but, in the long view, the Hilton sisters were more a case of "rags to riches and back to rags," considering their quick fall from superstardom back to obscurity.

The really hard part, claims Leonardo, isn't the storyline but the blocking; every director knows that two people in disagreement have a tendency to move away from one another, a luxury that Daisy and Violet didn't have. "You don't have the option of moving one person dealing with some psychological issue away from the other actors or toward them," Leonardo explains. "You have to move both of them at the same time, and they often have contrasting views. That was a great challenge."

Taking on that challenge are Susie McMonagle as Daisy and Kristen Behrendt as Violet; both are veterans of the touring production of "Les Miserables," where they became friends. Behrendt, who understudied the Violet role on Broadway and has played Daisy in a subsequent California production, sees the play as a pretty straightforward musical, its unusual main characters notwithstanding: It's about the tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit set to rhyming couplets, no more or less so than "West Side Story" or "Les Mis."

"In the end," suggests Behrendt, "the sad thing was that all they ever wanted was to be treated like normal people, and they never were."

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