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By Alex Doll

The last several years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the carnival sideshow- largely and particularly in the conjoined phenoms, Daisy and Violet Hilton. They- or an approximation of their vaudeville presence- seem to be cropping up everywhere lately, from Leslie Zemeckis’ new film Bound By Flesh (premiering June 27th on IFC) to the rumored female lead slated to be sporting two heads in the newest “freak show” themed installment of American Horror Story (AMC). What exactly is it about these two women, whose names, over the myriad of other successful performers, have become the most recognizable in the business, and their story, the most re-told? Side Show, directed by Bill Condon (Chicago, Dreamgirls), attempts to answer that question.

An antiqued yellow curtain stands between the Kennedy Center’s pensive audience and the curiosities that lie beyond. As the lights dim and the curtain rises, all manner of “freaks” emerge onto the stage. Living homages to sideshow legends, such as JoJo the dog-faced boy, Frank Lentini the 3-legged man and Frances O’Connor the “Living Venus De Milo,” are reverently costumed and (for the most part) represented with stunning physical accuracy. While some latitude is taken in the representation of other famous carnival assets for effect, the Academy Award winning FX team behind the production, Dave and Lou Elsey (whose previous work includes X-Men: First Class, Star Wars: Episode III and The Wolfman) manage to accomplish these slight deviations without a cartoonish affect. The period-piece springs to life within the brilliantly constructed backdrops, enthusiastically riddled with sideshow and vaudeville history. Sidebars within the story are imaginatively incorporated through the use of shadow play, even including a daring straight jacket escape from master illusionist, Harry Houdini (portrayed by Guy Lockard).

The impressive sets are only ever out done by the program’s sensational cast. The show’s female leads, Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, glide across the stage effortlessly, number after number, exhibiting the grace and the Olympian skill of two people who trained their whole lives to excel in the 3 legged race. Fascinatingly in sync, both in song and dance, the two women expertly interact and suspend any disbelief that they were anything other than born that way. Though attached at the hip, Padgett and Davie manage to slowly embody the two very distinct personalities of Daisy and Violet as the audience watches them grow into their independence. Of the many thematic elements present within the production, the ability to be self-governed and self-sufficient was paramount to the sisters’ characters. The twins endured being bought and sold and hired and managed and never really saw a moment in which they were not contractually obligated to someone for something. Originally owned by “Sir” (played by Robert Joy, CSI NY) who is, in fact, an amalgamation of the various “Sirs” in the lives of the real Hilton sisters, the twins are seemingly liberated and transferred into the care of manager, Terry Connor (played by Ryan Silverman) and then into the hands of filmmaker, Tod Browning (played by Don Richard). These transitions, though intended to be viewed through the lens of progress, often appeared as though the girls were frustratingly trading in one “bad egg” for another who was less so, instead of obtaining the ability to live exclusively on their own four feet.

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Side Show attractions, photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the Kennedy Center

The production’s choice to focus on the more uplifting message within the otherwise bleak and somber existence of Daisy and Violet Hilton in Side Show, felt like the re-imagining of a Bros. Grimm tale through the eyes of Disney. The show’s script and lyrics, rife with puns and double entendres (such as the scene in front of “Dad’s Glue Factory” where the sisters sing about being (literally) “stuck together” from birth) occasionally seemed campy and contrived, though, one could argue, they were meant to feel as such. In an era where every theater’s approach to exhibiting the twins was to make them accessible through playful banter, it was unclear if the twins embraced this approach as their own, or if it was yet another careful construct of their manager-of-the-hour.

Condon’s utilization of the Hilton’s story as a less than subtle platform to tell a greater tale of the sacrifice infused in social conformity is both captivating and overt. For Daisy and Violet, whose physical deformity is plain for the world to see, their struggle for acceptance and understanding is self-evident. In fact, their corporeal predicament is so conspicuous that it nearly eclipses the presence of the ingeniously juxtaposed challenges represented by the supporting cast to the time period’s social norms. From racism, to sexism, from homophobia, to religious persecution, nearly every character who takes the stage struggles with their own personal demon. Though the focus of the narrative is clearly on the show’s stars, the supporting elements paint a crucial portrait of just how universal these two women’s story actually is.

While the characters in Side Show are based on relevant individuals in the lives of the real Daisy and Violet Hilton, there is one pivotal character in the musical’s plot who never existed. Jake, (played by David St. Louis) who is first introduced as a “cannibal” alongside the freaks in the show’s opening scene, and who later occupies a more prominent role in the twins’ lives as their closest friend, protector and adviser on the road, never lived. The real twins never enjoyed such an advocate for the duration of their careers and it begs the question- when staying relatively true to the details of these performers’ lives, why deviate in such a major fashion for the sake of this one character? The musical revolves primarily around the concept of “acceptance”- not necessarily “what is normal” as others have posited, but what people are “willing to embrace.” In their early years in Side Show, the Hilton sisters are marketed as “freaks”- genetic abnormalities on display. There is a certain stigma, awash in shame and a mixture of wonder and pity that come with the territory of viewing another human being as an exhibit. When someone is placed in that context, it is natural to react to them as if they are a separate inhuman “thing”- the intent is to create a distance and awe surrounding the opportunity to witness something so extraordinary and so different from ourselves. With the addition of the character of Jake in the lives of the Hiltons, there exists a sympathetic link to their humanity. Jake’s character never views the girls as anything other than who they are, never placing them on a pedestal or putting them on display. But in Jake there also exists a parallel opportunity to explore a broader concept of social constructs during that era.

Jake is an African-American. While the Hilton sisters have their own social stigma to bear, the presence of Jake alongside them in that era draws a compelling parallel to the struggles faced by the women as they venture further out into the world. Jake not only endures bigotry from various characters throughout the production, in a seemingly ironic twist, he is then cast aside due to the potential stigma of a more involved association with him by the sisters. This does not serve to demonize the sisters in the play, but to humanize them further. The fear of rejection, by society at large, fueled the activities and careers of the Hiltons. They spent their lives, carefully honing and constructing a public image which was so critical to their sense of connection to the outside world they were unwilling to place it in jeopardy, regardless of the cost to them, emotionally.

Side Show possesses a bittersweet quality, from beginning to end, for the audience as well as the Hilton sisters. While it would be easy to say the production ends on a positive note, the heavier undertones of the production’s message leave a weightier thought provoking impact for the astute viewer. The musical is dynamic, and as such, can be enjoyed with a levity and buoyancy that the bleaker history and context do not have to sully. The production and its cast should be given due credit for the headier material addressed within and their impeccable and visually arresting execution throughout.

Side Show is playing through July 13, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (800)444-1324 or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online at kennedy-center.org