Long before Paris and Nicky, when anybody discussed the “Hilton sisters” they were referring to Daisy and Violet, a famous pair of conjoined twins who toured Europe and the United states in the 1920s and ’30s on the sideshow, vaudeville and burlesque circuits.
In 1997, writer Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger turned the story of the Hiltons into a Broadway musical, "Side Show," that met with moderate success and has since become a favorite among local and regional theaters. The newest mounting of "Side Show" here in Austin comes courtesy of Trinity Street Players.
Director Eric Vera and set designer Steve Williams have turned this production into an intimate affair, with three seating sections pushed right up to the edge of the playing space. As a result, the audience is immersed in Violet and Daisy’s world, with close-up looks at the good-hearted “freaks” who they work with at the sideshow (their first performance venue) and the selfishly motivated “normal” producers on the more respected vaudeville circuit. This also gives a close-up look at Colleen PowerGriffin’s remarkable costuming that evokes both the general historical era and the individual personalities of the characters, providing an ever-changing visual feast throughout the show.
The strength of "Side Show," as a text, is far more in its story and characters than in its music, which is generally forgettable. Book writer Russell, though, has done a solid job crafting a nuanced set of lead characters, beginning with the sisters themselves.
Ann Catherine Zárate portrays the outgoing, career-driven Daisy, who wishes to be famous, a direct counterpoint to Sarah Zeringue’s shyer, more reserved Violet, motivated more by love than money. This kind of dichotomy is, of course, a bit of a cliché, and that is probably the greatest weakness of the script; its entire structure and message are both something that you’ve seen before, many times over.
Trinity Street Players’ production, then, is at its strongest when it’s either having fun or focusing on the raw vocal talent of the cast. Andrew Cannata, as Buddy (one of the vaudeville producers and Violet’s love interest, of a sort), is particularly adept at honing in on moments where his own natural exuberance as a song-and-dance-man are able to come out, while Roderick Sanford’s solo as Jake, the girls’ guardian, serves as a show-stopping 11 o’clock number, thanks to Sanford’s booming, powerful voice.
Zárate and Zeringue, though, are the heart of the production and have a wonderful sisterly chemistry that makes their characters believable. They are also remarkably adept at matching each other’s voices, creating a delightful vocal representation of their physical union.
It’s fitting, then, that "Side Show" ends with a duet between the pair, one that only slightly undercuts the potentially bleak ending that would otherwise have the potential to cut through the script’s clichés. Despite those clichés, though, the cast and crew of Trinity Street Player’s production have crafted a fun, energetic performance with a lot of heart and more than a little classic show biz flair.