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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Boys on the Side (Show)

MLast week, I believed that something terrible had come to pass. I had reminded M of his desire to see Side Show at Theatre Building Chicago (TBC). When I called on Sunday to reserve tickets for that evening, they were sold out, and I thought we'd missed our chance. Fortunately, M engaged in some polite, persistent questioning that revealed I'm a dumbass. The show closes July 9, and we got tickets for last night to look at the freaks. Or the freaks external to our home, anyway.

This musical was completely unknown to me, although the story of "Siamese" twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, is familiar, naturally. I don't want to insult my audience here, because I know all y'all are total musical whores like me, but in case you didn't know, the composer, Henry Krieger, was also the dubious talent behind Dreamgirls (I don't care how many Tonys it has, that is ASS). Bill Russell, on book and lyrics, is less well-known. His Last Smoker in America is being mounted Off-Broadway later this summer, and most of his other credits from that side of Manhattan tend toward the might-be-a-cult-hit-someday end of the spectrum. Although Krieger and Russell have been collaborating for nearly 15 years, Side Show seems so far to have been the peak of their success with its 3-month run on Broadway in 1997.

To get the snootyness out of the way more or less up front, the fact that these two haven't been storming Broadway is not wholly surprising if Side Show is the best they've got. It's not unenjoyable by any means, but as this review at Curtain Up indicates, the music is repetitive, but not especially catchy (in fact, my brain keeps defaulting to things from Wicked, to which I think there are stylistic relationships, but Wicked is a lot more complex and aurally appealing; and although I have really grown to like Wicked, it's not ESPECIALLY complex in the grand scheme of things); the book is, quite frankly, painfully bad at times with its clunky rhymes and phrasing and recitative to set your teeth on edge.

And yet, there are a few numbers that are on fire, hitting everything exactly right. "The Devil You Know," a darkly jazzy ensemble number performed by the other freaks, thankfully comes early on, which had both me and M letting out a sigh of relief. Both "When I'm By Your Side" (the first number the girls learn, in secret, as a stepping stone from the side show to Vaudville) and "We Share Everything" play on the obvious joke in quite different ways and both really work. And for a number that seems to have been designed to give one character something to really sing, "One Plus One Equals Three" is no "Sneaking Around with You" (and by extension, I guess it's also no "Luckenbach, Texas"). So for what our opinion is worth, Side Show is musically uneven, but not unlistenable.

In terms of the overall story, it's got some more serious problems. Perhaps I'm spoiled by Carnivale, but I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my Carnies Machiavellian. This side show comprises a fire-eating fakir, a reptilian man, a snake charmer, a fortune teller, two harem girls, a bearded lady, the cannibal king, and a geek. Initially they're shown (with the exception of the evil, drunk boss, of course) to be one big, happy, diabetic-coma-inducing family as they celebrate the girls' birthday. Ten minutes later, their jealousies and rivalries come to a head in "Devil You Know," and then we never see most of them again. Rather than this making them look like complex, multilayered people, though, this gave me characterization whiplash. I'm not sure if it's intended as some kind of sick Forest Gump message (you'd better stay with the people who love and accept you, never seeeking more, or the 60s will happen to you and you'll get AIDS AND DIE), or if we're supposed to think that the girls have never had any kind of place that's home.

From the bosom of the carnies, Violet and Daisy are received into the arms of the most benevolent talent management agents in the world---Terry and Buddy. They are stalwart men and true, concerned only for the girls' career and never thinking to keep the entire pie for themselves. They even insist that Jake, the cannibal king, come along to help "backstage" with the girls' show. If the manager/worker dynamic is some kind of clumsy commentary on class relationships (scabby, blue-collar sideshow boss BAD; handsome, besuited white-collar vaudeville bosses FULL OF HUGS AND PUPPIES), the attempts by Kriger and Russell to introduce an 11th-hour race plot make that look sophisticated.

On the one hand, Jake is clearly being used by the side show boss as an enforcer (oooh, big scary black man!). On the other, no one else, in the entire world, the entire time that the girls are climbing the social/entertainment ladder remarks on his race. He's dressed in increasingly natty clothes; he attends all their A-list parties; he seems to be getting a nice cut of the profits; and then suddenly, when he confesses his love to Violet, she couldn't dream of marrying him, because of . . . what he is . . . um . . . you know . . . that skin thing would prevent her from having a normal life. Seriously weird.

Ok, now that I've got my bitching about the material out of the way, I can move on to the production. The company mounting it was The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, to which I am completely new. Although this was staged at TBC, it was not in the same theater in which I saw Porchlight Theatre's production of The Secret Garden. Instead, it was in the very wide, but not very deep space next door. It's not an ideal space or an easy one to work in. It reminded me of a gamma-irradiated version of the Breadline Theatre's (I'd link you to them, but their site is completely flashfucked, but it's breadline.org) space in which spouse M, pal M, and I saw a staging of Terry Pratchett's Mort.

It probably seats a little over 100 people, but sightlines are seriously challenged the further one moves from the house center. Fortunately, we were in the second row, just to house left. Even still, in two instances, they hadn't really come to grips with the limitations of such a shallow stage, and I wondered how little others could see, given my obstructed view of these scenes. But overall, the staging was very cleverly done. The sides of the proscenium had nice reproductions of vintage side show banners advertising the Tiger Queen, the Tattooed Lady, Electra, and the Fat Lady, with the words "Why?" and "Alive" randomly smattered across them and across the floor of the stage (although we didn't notice the latter until much later in the show).

This isn't a show that you can go wingless on, nor do you want to. John Zuiker, the Scenic Designer, did a nice job creating the wings. He essentially created a minimalist "inside-the-midway" space on the stage, using nothing more than bare wood and dusty, faded red and cream draping material. Two beams angled down and back from the top of the proscenium to make the stage look deeper than it is, and the draping gave the constant impression of tent flaps, which was put to good use, at least early on as the other carnies peeped in at the girls during their supposedly private moments. The back wall of the stage was a wooden, slatted fence with gates that could be rolled aside easily. To accomplish quick costume changes or to transform the tent into a more intimate space, there was a rollable flat of wooden slats on one side and the drapery on the other, which could be placed at center stage or rolled to stage left where it "blended" with the side wall.

The aforementioned staging missteps involved some of these rollable pieces, though, and both came late in the show. At one point, Violet (and, by literal extension, Daisy) is having the awk-ward conversation with Jake, which is followed by Jake kind of losing it. Certainly, the rolling flat is needed at that point, because it's bizarre to have such an emotional moment in a cavernous space. However, there's a reprise of Jake's "Cannibal King" music, complete with the ensemble members pounding staves into the floor (to evoke his earlier side show number). In the very small space, it's not an option to have the ensemble come out and surround him or anything (and it would've been over the top), but neither are they completely concealed from view, either in the wings or behind the flat. From where we were, we could see one or two of them far up right, and I imagine at other points people caught different glimpses, but it just ended up being distracting.

Similarly, there's a large rolling chair set piece with an elaborate wooden back to it. This is used for the girls' first Follies number and also for the car in the Tunnel of Love. In the latter scene, Daisy and Terry can't keep their hands off each other, and Violet and Buddy are discovering at an extremely awkward moment that they don't like each other THAT WAY. During the song, the ensemble members are far upstage, largely in silhouette, dancing, writhing, etc. But the back of the damned chair is so high that for much of the number, they could have been setting up a wigwam for all I could see. But as I said, those two places were the exception to some creative and well-done staging overall.

The costuming was also good overall. The girls' outfits could have been challenging, given the different figures of the women playing the twins, but Theresa Ham managed to put together some really nice vintage pieces. Their "Follies" dresses were about the only exception. Basically, they were wearing short white A-lines (which turn out later to be their wedding dresses), but the number is supposed to be a feathery, foamy extravaganza. The wispy material that had been draped and tied over the dresses was just too stiff and hadn't been adequately adjusted, at least in Daisy's case, and she had to keep trying to stand up taller than the vicious fold of material that was trying to eat her face.

Their "You Should Be Loved" dresses deserve an honorable mention amid a uniformly good design---in this scene, the twins are as emotionally far apart as they'll get. Although their dresses are stylistically identical and literally cut from the same highly patterned cloth, Ham has managed to get very different sections of it, so that Violet, the bride-to-be is in a section that's much brighter, whereas Daisy's contains a lot more tan, giving her the look of fading into the background. Oh, and their big Vaudville number was done in Egyptian-themed atrocities that were like Early-Stargate-Goes-Broadaway. It was FANTASTIC---so cheap and trashy in a way completely different from the cheapness of the side show.
One final note on the girls' costumes: Most of the time, we could see a glimpse of their undergarments. I don't know if this was a fit issue, a quick-change issue or what. I'm in no way complaining, because I liked it as a symbol that they literally have no privacy, but I'm not entirely sure it was as deliberate choice.

The carnies, especially the Boss had great costumes that made them look down-at-heel and unsavory when peforming. At the rapid change from carnie-to-reporter, they all came out in trenchcoats, scarves, etc., that didn't quite cover their costumes, but I'm not sure there's a better solution out there beyond casting other actors. I very much liked the fact that the male ensemble members were in sweaty tank tops, ill-fitting suit pants, and braces when they were doing background stuff. It gave this constant feeling that rousties were managing every phase of the girls' lives and a period-appropriate, desperate feel.

As for the acting, this was an extremely strong cast that seems to have been well-directed for the most part. Vanessa Panerosa and Andrea Prestinario really didn't look much alike, yet they simultaneously managed to pull off the twin gag while having strongly individual personalities from the moment of their first reveal. Daisy (Panerosa) is the out-going, would-be startlet, and Violet (Prestinario) just wants a home and family, and we see that in every inch of their posture and body language throughout the show, even as they both grow and change. Add to that their nearly flawless choreography and you have great lead performers. If I had to pick on anything about them, I'd say that both were probably singing actors, not acting singers, but that's the right call to make in this situation. That said, though, their voices were quite different, and they weren't always ideally meshed in their more emotional numbers.

Probably the best casting move was going back to 1987 and getting Cary Elwes to play Terry Connor. I mean, seriously, Brandon Dahlquist was un-freaking-canny, and fortunately, that's a great choice for the role. Eric Lindahl was equally well cast as Jimmy Olsen as Buddy Foster---completely charming and more than a little pathetic and wrong-headed, Lindahl gave Buddy depth where he could've been a schizophrenic disaster. Once again, though, I wonder how much time they had to work up the vocal stuff, given the complexity of staging and choreography. Lindahl had a strong, solid voice and was obviously a very teachable player, but even he had a few rough spots. Dahlquist had a nice tenor that unfortunately tended to fade into the background, particularly against Panerosa's Daisy.

In the past, I was not especially kind to Rus Rainear who played Byck in the Boxer Rebellion's Assassins. I'm happy to be much more enthusiastic here. He's an odd-looking man and much smaller than I remember him being. Paired with his look, his voice is somewhat suspect, and thus, he was ideal to play the slimy side show boss, and later the comic relief, pith-helmeted Vaudeville player. As an added bonus, he brought his own amazing facial hair.

The ensemble members were exceptionally good, always adding to the scenes they were in, rather than detracting. Kat Garassino as the fortune teller/ensemble member had one of the strongest voices and really carried some of the numbers. I couldn't tell you much about the voices of the other ensemble members individually, because they blended nicely for the most part. Also, they were such an interesting-looking collection of folks that they were very well-suited to what they needed to do. In particular, Kevin Bishop had this "Michael Rosenbaum's creepily attractive cousin" thing going on (and, yeah, I'm guessing every bald guy ever is tired of the Rosenbaum comparison by now, but come on, it's Lex. He's hot. Take it for what it is), and Jonathan Goodman as the snake charmer has this look that straddles the line between leading man and character actor, which should serve him well.

Aaron Holland as Jake, the Cannibal King, was perhaps the only victim of some wavering direction. He's a good, solid actor and his voice was marvelous. But the race plot is just a weird one and I got the sense that Stephen Genovese, the director, was somewhat at a loss. Early on, when Violet good-naturedly manipulates Jake armed only with the power of her smile, Holland was playing the crush in an odd "aawww shucks" kind of way that was half avuncular, half younger-kid-next-door. Although it's not like I missed that he was seriously in love with Violet, the passion of "You Should be Loved" was weirdly out of step with the earlier take on the relationship.

I need to get to see these things sooner in their run, because this is one that I would have highly recommended to anyone in the are. Sadly, you've only got about 30 hours left to catch it. Bad Matilda, no biscuit!

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