“Side Show” is fun, with a relatable message

By Carrie Moore

Step right up! Right over here! Come, hear — uh, read — about a tale so wild, so poignant and so powerful that you’ll want to see it again, and again, and again.

The dramatic musical “Side Show” is the second production of this season for the Black Hills Playhouse (BHP). While “Sherwood” took us on a fun, thrilling adventure, “Side Show” takes us to the beginning of a freak show, where we’re welcomed into a very peculiar world. But with that comes a very sad and lonely tale.

“Side Show” tells the story of real life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were not only famous stage performers in the 1930s, but also the highest paid act in the history of Vaudeville. Spearfish native Bill Russell wrote the play over 25 years ago, saying the idea of two actors “moving and singing together would be strikingly theatrical and metaphorically rich.” This production was just that and more.

I’ve been reviewing plays at the Black Hills Playhouse for seven years now. Let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve seen a better cast on that stage. As an acting ensemble, it was fun to watch everyone commit to their side show roles (even when the “spotlight” wasn’t on them) and play off of each other. But when it came to singing — wow! — did we get a treat! I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard such harmony from an entire ensemble. There may have “only” been 16 actors on the stage, but it sounded like 50. The blend of voices was very striking, powerful and emotional. From the very first song, I knew “Side Show” was going to be an emotional and powerful show.

In the beginning, the audience is greeted by the sorrowful faces of the entire cast. The cast then exits the stage, re-entering as members of the side show with “Come Look at the Freaks.” Inviting us to step into this peculiar world is Sir (Jeff Kingsbury), the ringmaster. The “freaks,” such as the bearded lady, geek, a fortune teller and a cannibal, to name a few, are introduced, before the star attractions — the Siamese twins — step onto the stage.

It’s a dark introduction into this world and to our stars, Daisy (Josey Miller) and Violet (Paige Hauer) Hilton. We better meet the Hilton sisters through the song “Like Everyone Else,” where they detail their hopes, dreams and wishes. Violet, the introverted sister, wants a simple, stable life, while Daisy, the pushier, outgoing sister, wants to be a star. While it’s a fun song to listen to, it’s a subtle reminder that these sisters are attached for life, yet long for opposing lifestyles.

Attending the side show is actor Buddy Foster (Jack Warring) and talent scout Terry Connor (Kevin Earlywine), who meet with the twins and promise to give them a better life. The twins are soon presented with a tough decision: leave the side show for love, fame and fortune or remain under the thumb of Sir, but with their friends?

As the Hilton sisters, Miller and Hauer shine so bright. 

Josey Miller and Paige Hauer are Daisy and Violet Hilton. (Photo courtesy of Black Hills Playhouse)

As the outgoing one, Miller has a lot more jabs and one liners. She would lighten up some situations — my favorite line probably being “I’m going to have a heart attack that will kill both of us!” Miller’s delivery of those lines was also impeccable, getting big laughs.

While Violet may not have wanted the limelight, it was hard to not watch Hauer. Her reactions and delivery were subtle and very effective. Whether she was giving a look to Miller or singing about how she wants to be normal, Hauer’s presence was commanding and inspiring. 

In “Side Show,” Miller and Hauer were joined at the hip — literally! The two moved so elegantly, giving the illusion they were joined together, either by costume or a really strong magnet. But as it turns out, neither. Miller and Hauer are so good in their movements that you almost forget they’ve only been “attached” for a few weeks. The ease and fluidity they share is remarkable and truly a talent. And just wait until you see them in action in any musical number — or even walking down stairs! I struggle with that on my own two legs. Sheesh! 

I also love how Miller and Hauer vocally complement each other. Miller has a lot of power in her voice — perfect for Daisy’s quick wit and emotion — while Hauer is more subdued and even toned, perfect for Violet’s reservedness. “I Will Never Leave You” is a wonderful example of their talent and skill; the crème de la crème of the show. I couldn’t think of a better paired duo, singing, dancing and delivering their funny one liners. 

A stand out for me was Darryl D’Angelo Jones as Jake, known in the side show as the man-eating cannibal. When he’s not striking fear with the threat of eating one’s flesh, he’s protecting the Hilton sisters from any unwanted visitors. He’s also madly in love with Violet, crushed when those sentiments aren’t returned. D’Angelo Jones has two emotional performances, the first with “The Devil You Know” and the second with “You Should Be Loved.” I couldn’t help but shed a couple tears with the latter. It’s hard to not commiserate with the thought of unrequited love. D’Angelo Jones is an amazing singer, only making the song that much more poignant.

Warring and Earlywine are both great in their portrayals of Buddy and Terry. They played off each other well and were fun to watch when interacting with Kingsbury and D’Angelo Jones. They were also both great when it came to the musical numbers, such as Warring in “One Plus One Equals Three” and Earlywine in “Private Conversations.” It was also really fun to see Miller, Hauer and Warring — joined by Cole Kennedy — in “Stuck With You.” It was fun song to play on the situation, made great by the actors’ dancing and delivery.

Jeff Kingsbury is the smarmy, villainous Sir, who has legal custody over the twins, working them day and night. He’s mean, he’s ruthless and he’s vile. And even though he’s the nicest guy ever, Kingsbury is truly awful — just showing how great of an actor he is. Kingsbury was great when he was welcoming the crowd to see the freaks, joining in on “Come Look at the Freaks.” 

The rest of the ensemble are amazing in their 15 million roles. Everyone has a role in the side show, but they also play a character from the Hilton sisters’ past and even their present. Some ensemble members play up to 6 roles in the production! “Side Show” would truly not be nearly as funny, quick and meaningful without the ensemble. 

Alex Rudd is the cuddly Dog Boy — also the mystical and, who knew, inspirational Houdini; Bethany Springs is Venus de Milo — the wonder woman with no arms; Caleb Olson is the Lizard Man, who always lurking and crawling around; Chris Schilling is the Geek, who apparently really likes blood; Jenna Lee Moore is the Bearded Lady, but more impressively, the terrifying Auntie who takes in the twins; Cole Kennedy is the Half-man/Half-woman (who probably has one of my favorite costumes) and also Daisy’s dance partner, who is a riot in the “Stuck With You” scene; Jimmy Nguyen is the Three Legged Man (who I couldn’t help but watch because he really made it seem like his fake leg was a real, functional leg!); Kenzie Henderson is the Tattooed Girl, who oozes sex appeal; Lera Zamaraeva is the Fortune Teller, who gives off a great air of intrigue and mystery; and Nicholas Ducote is the Human Pin Cushion, who shocks and amaze in his first two seconds on the stage.

It was a real treat and honor to see “Side Show” under the direction of Bill Russell, who also wrote it. Lyrics were done by Russell and Henry Krieger. The story is important and deep and the lyrics are fun, but also impactful. From the minute it starts, “Side Show” in engaging and sucks you in, all thanks to Russell’s writing and direction. Everyone truly shines on the stage.

Once again, choreographer Andrea Schaefer played to the actors’ strengths. I have also always been enamored with tap dancing, so I was thrilled to see it utilized. Schaefer also tackled some challenging routines, like say, anything with conjoined twins. The moves were effortless, agile and fun — the perfect Vaudeville act!

Musical director Meredith Meersman led the band — which includes herself, Vonnie Houchin and Alan Temple — with a sure touch. I really enjoyed having live music for all the performances; it really added an extra dimension to the production.

I think the costumes for “Side Show” have become my favorite ever, all due to the wonderfully talented Katie Curry. There were a lot of people to dress — 16, to be exact — but also numerous costume changes. Miller and Hauer alone have a least a dozen. Curry — and the costume shop staff — have clearly been making costumes for a year, because how else do you explain this magic?! I loved the freaks’ costumes — Kennedy’s Half-Man/Half-Woman was excellent, as well as Henderson’s Tattooed Girl — and how expressive and imaginative they were. 

Daisy and Violet’s costumes must also be mentioned. In the first act of the production, I thought the costumes were one whole piece — leaving me to wonder how in the world the girls change in and out of them so quickly. But then once I learned the two simply leaned their hips against each other, I was blown away. Curry’s costumes truly worked as if Miller and Hauer were one. They blended perfectly, but also worked on their own. I also really liked how the costumes played into the Vaudeville era. They were campy, match-y and so, so fun!

Victor Shonk returns as scenic designer, once again crafting a beautiful and practical set. I loved the patterns, colors and tones — all perfectly exemplifying a freak show. When the side show was happening, there were large canvas-looking displays advertising some of the acts one could see. It was a fun way to set the scene. I also liked the use of backdrops, curtains and vignettes, all bringing in an element of whimsey — perfect for a Vaudevillian-era bit. 

Speaking of Vaudeville, Darren Levin’s lighting was fun and true to the era. It was spot on (no pun intended) when we saw scenes of the twins in Vaudeville — the spotlight directly on them, the iconic, bright circle of light putting them on display. I like how that continued into the other numbers — the non-Vaudevillian scenes — almost showing that the girls continue to be in the limelight, given their appearance. It was also really fun to see the different costumes in the light, particularly the Hilton sisters’ sparkly maroon and gold dresses.

So, hopefully you’re ready to step on up to see the show, “Side Show,” that is. While the thrill of the unusual may entice you, it’s the story of hope and love that will keep you. The message of “Side Show” is one that everyone can relate to, whether it’s feeling lonely, wanting a life full of fame, fortune and excess — or maybe the exact opposite — or even just the simple notion of having someone by your side, attached at the hip or not.

“Side Show” runs through July 21 and is rated PG-13. Get your tickets now by visiting blackhillsplayhouse.com.

What did you think of the show? Leave a comment and let us know!