Chicago Theatre Review
Come Look at the Freaks
Side Show – Porchlight Music Theatre
The poignant and affecting story of conjoined twin sisters, Daisy and Violet Hilton, is based upon the real lives of two world-famous vaudeville and burlesque performers who achieved fame during the 1920’s and 30’s. Porchlight Music Theatre’s new season opens with a polished, professional production that’s both exciting to watch and sad to comprehend. With sensitivity and sparkle, Artistic Director Michael Weber tells the musical tale of two women who were mistreated and deplorably exploited for their unusual physical deformity. It’s an intimate presentation of a show that’s not had much success on Broadway, but has become a cult favorite among musical theatre aficionados and the curious.
In 1997 a new musical opened on Broadway. Written by Bill Russell, with a musical score composed by Henry Krieger, it was a big, splashy theatrical recounting of Daisy and Violet’s story. The show was nominated for several Tony Awards but went home empty-handed. As a result, the musical closed after only 91 performances. However, in 2013, a darker, revised version opened at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. It added fresh information and characters from the Hilton sisters’ past, as well as several new songs (while a few from the original score were either reworked or completely eliminated). The production went on to play a limited run at the Kennedy Center and finally opened on Broadway during the Fall of 2014. Despite positive reviews, this much improved revival only lasted for seven weeks. This reworked, reimagined version is being given its first professional production following a modest Broadway reappearance, and many agree that it’s even better.
Michael Weber’s emotional production focuses primarily on the Hilton Sisters’ backstory and their desperate search for love and independence. While maintaining the razzle-dazzle of the original, this revised version opens the door to the girls’ past, revealing more of the events and people who shaped them. With the addition of new characters and songs, this production, especially because of the venue’s intimacy between actor and audience, tenderly touches the heart. The twins earn the audience’s empathy; however, while the focus is primarily on the Hilton sisters, our care extends toward other characters, as well. Playgoers come to understand the loneliness and frustration within the other performance characters, as well. And patrons will share the hurt that Jake, the girls’ loving African-American protector, and Buddy, a closeted song-and-dance man, are also feeling.
As Daisy and Violet Hilton, beautiful Colleen Fee and Britt-Marie Sivertsen are both relatively new young actresses with astounding voices. Individually they’re excellent, but as a team they turn in a dynamite performance. Tenderly linked together, the girls sing, dance, travel the stage and interact with their hands always joined in front. They take the audience on their roller coaster emotional journey, from the sordid world of the Freak Show, with flashbacks to their abusive past, toward the present, filled with hope and romance, and on toward a future laced with success and promise. Working so well together, these two actresses vividly convey the sadness their physical limitation offers, but the joy and comfort of always having each other’s love and support. Their two hard-to-forget dynamite power ballads, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” which come at the end of each act, are simply heartbreaking.
As the men in their lives, Matthew Keffer, Devin DeSantis and Evan Tyrone Martin are terrific. At first Terry Connor and Buddy Foster are simply wheeler-dealers, showmen who only want to exploit the twins in order to make a fortune beyond the Sideshow tents (“Very Well Connected”). But soon Keffer and DeSantis, each actor a triple threat with mighty impressive resumes, not only wow the audience with their enthusiasm and razzmatazz, but discover they’re falling in love with the ladies. Terry and Daisy’s number, “Private Conversation,” and Buddy’s trio with the girls, “One Plus One Equals Three,” show us who these guys really are beneath. Mr. Martin’s heartfelt portrayal of Jake, the Sideshow worker who’s secretly in love with Violet, is honest and filled with pain. His numbers, “The Devil You Know” and, especially, “You Should Be Loved,” are melodic monologues that show us a man who’s not afraid to share his true feelings. All three gentlemen are equally impressive in their roles.
Matthias Austin and Amanda Hartley are frighteningly selfish and callous as Sir and Auntie, the adults who own the Hilton girls and call the shots. The ensemble is wonderful, particularly John Marshall, Jr. as The Three-Legged Man, and Johnson Brock, as both The Human Pin Cushion and Ray, Buddy’s real romantic interest. Both men are astounding singer/dancers and make every production number shine.
Aaron Benham’s musical direction, as well as the talented six-piece orchestra under his baton, is sublime. Both Michael Weber’s spirited staging and Andrew Waters’ challenging choreography skillfully showcase the hidden talents within this marvelous cast. Megan Truscott’s adaptable scenic design takes us from the circus tent to the vaudeville stage and everywhere in between. Each locale is nicely enhanced by Ross Hoppe’s finely researched projections. Bill Morey steps up to the demands of period sideshow costuming, complete with special prosthetic effects, crowned by Kevin Barthel’s expressive hair and wig designs and Kimberley Morris’ specialty makeups.
If this brilliant, honest and wholehearted production is any indication, Porchlight Music Theatre’s new season will be nothing short of spectacular. Because of Michael Weber’s magic, this company simply gets better and better every year. And a cult musical, that has had a tough time succeeding in the Big Apple is, in Mr. Weber’s hands, perfectly cast, insightfully staged and slickly produced here for Chicago audiences. The intimacy of this venue lends itself so well to this deeply personal story of society’s outcasts and the love and respect they each humbly seek and deserve. Come Look at the Freaks and appreciate that this may be the best production of this lovely musical that audiences will ever see.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 11-October 25 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-327-5252 or by going to www.porchlightmusictheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.