Printable CopySIDE SHOW
Hills Musical Company Inc
Stirling Community Theatre
Until 05 May 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

An outstanding cast, beautiful score, and effective set design make “Side Show” a great night of entertainment. Loosely based on the true story of the Hilton sisters, the original production was first produced in 1997 with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger. It was revived in 2014, with additional content by Bill Condon, and while the revival does eliminate some of the problematic elements of the original, ‘Sideshow’ fails to bring any real depth to the story, and suffers from a lack of authentic humanity, something the show itself purports to be about.

Director Amanda Rowe has assembled a stellar cast. From the first number, the ensemble is electrifying as they call out for all to “Come Look at the Freaks”, a song that is both tantalising and horrifying, as the sideshow performers are paraded in front of us. It is a spectacle, as the original sideshows and freak museums were, and the main attraction here is the Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, who are conjoined at the hip. Played by Fiona DeLaine and Rebecca Raymond, from the very moment these two sing together they are enchanting, somehow simultaneously sounding like one voice and two. The sisters are kept in their sideshow life by Sir, (Scott Nell), a man who is their legal guardian despite them being of age, under the protection of Jake (Omkar Nagesh) who plays the Cannibal King in the show. After Terry Connor (Paul Rodda), a talent scout for the Orpheum Circuit, sees the sisters perform, he’s convinced he can make them into stars. With the assistance of Buddy Foster (Jared Frost), a fellow performer, Terry successfully persuades Daisy and Violet to seek emancipation from Sir and follow he and Buddy to vaudeville. Daisy (DeLaine) longs for praise, fortune and success, and is easily convinced, while Violet (Raymond) aspires to be able to settle down and live a quiet life.

DeLaine and Raymond shine throughout this production. They have a palpable chemistry, and explore individual inner worlds that often conflict with each other. It takes chops to embody loneliness when you’re literally attached to someone else’s side, as well as an unspoken emotional connection. DeLaine’s nuanced performance in particular conveys a profound pain that is felt deeply by the audience throughout. Their Act 1 closer, “Who Will Love Me as I Am” is truly extraordinary.

The complexity of Daisy and Violet’s situation, however, is under served by Bill Russell’s shallow script. While the show is ostensibly about the beauty of an individual’s humanity, neither character is given much of a personality to work with, and it’s a testament to both DeLaine and Raymond that it works as well it does here. Their dreams and desires are also, unfortunately, reduced almost entirely to their romantic lives. They don’t have a song with just the two of them until forty five minutes in, and even then, it revolves entirely around the men they are in love with. This remains the case for majority of the show, and it’s a shame the musical takes such an interesting story and boils it down to the most cliché musical theatre tropes and beats. Neither character is given much agency or voice within the script, and while that is perhaps intentional, it misses an opportunity to convey the strength, intelligence, and tenacity Daisy and Violet Hilton embodied as women. DeLaine and Raymond would have been more than up for it.

As the four men in their lives, the other leads are all solid. Nagesh is deeply affecting as Jake, a man who loves the girls deeply, which often puts himself in a position to be hurt. His key numbers – “The Devil You Know” and “You Should Be Loved” – are highlights of the night. Nell as Sir is appropriately pompous and cruel, though a darker menace to the performance would have made it more powerful. Rodda as Terry plays the fine line between saviour and scoundrel superbly, and Frost’s vulnerability and kindness as Buddy is the perfect counterpoint. Once again each of these characters is underdeveloped, and often feel more like narrative plot devices than real people-a flaw of the source material and not of the performances.

The rest of the ensemble are outstanding, even though most of the other roles have even less character development than the leads. The other sideshow performers are given no personality of their own, and often end up being little more than a visual spectacle, which ultimately feels too close to the exploitative nature of the original freak shows. Despite given little to work with, each member of the cast is superb and when they sing together, it’s a wonder to behold.

The technical aspects of “Side Show” are one of its strongest points. The innovative set design by David Lampard is fabulous; it is deceptively simple, yet manages to convey so much, and only enhanced by the dynamic lighting design by Tim Bates. The band is conducted expertly by Mark DeLaine, whose musical direction is evident in the seamless musicality of the whole production, which lets Henry Krieger’s score soar. It’s a shame about Bill Russell’s clunky and banal lyrics.

“Side Show” makes a real attempt to subvert the exploitative nature of performance, but the juxtaposition between Daisy and Violet’s outer and inner worlds is never fully explored, neither is any character developed enough for it all to feel more than just a thoroughly entertaining show. The overall message is ultimately heart-warming, as well as being tragic, as the reality of Daisy and Violet’s limitations are made plain. Amanda Rowe has done an extraordinary job, considering the limitations of the source material, and the cast and crew includes some of the finest in Adelaide’s musical theatre scene. The show is highly recommended, but also take the time to read the details Daisy and Violet’s true story.