Review: Media’s powerful ‘Side Show’ is a must-see for all musical theatre lovers

The ensemble plays an audience who pay money to gawk at Daisy and Violet Hilton during the Texas Centennial in Media Theatre’s fine production of “Side Show”.

By Margie Royal

Media Theatre is staging a brief run of the musical “Side Show” by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) through March 26. Hurry if you want to see director Jesse Cline’s fine, intimate production which looks at the lives of cojoined twins Daisy (Jenna Pastuszek) and Violet (Ashley Sweetman) Hilton, who became famous in the 1930s.

The musical begins by showing their lives as circus performers, as star attractions in a freak show. The first act has a lot of ground to cover: the writers handle it in musical flashbacks to tell of the girls’ childhood and how they ended up inside a circus tent. Act two shows them as stars on the vaudeville stage, and ends just as they are about to go to Hollywood. The musical is no Cinderella story, however, – it achingly explores the pain of being human. Who hasn’t at some time felt like a freak of nature —  wanting to have the love and dreams that seem to come so easily to others, and for which you obviously aren’t wired? That’s the realm “Side Show” poignant explores through the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton – and their encounter with aspiring star Buddy Foster (Derek Basthemer), who brings talent scout Terry Connor (Bob Stineman) to see the twins.
Media is presenting the 2014 Broadway revival of the show, and has assembled a stellar cast for their brief March run.
The show gets off to a strong start as Sir (Kelly Briggs), the circus ringmaster, introduces the cast of “freaks”: the bearded lady (Susan Wefel), a tattoo lady (Jennie Eisenhower), a half man/half woman (Brian Henry), Fortune Teller (Krystina Hawkinson), Three Legged Man (Patrick Ludt), Dog Boy (Roger Ricker), Lizard Man (Ryan Lauer), Venus De Milo (Kimberly Maxson), Pin Cushion (Grant Strubla) and a geek (Jim Conte). The opening number, Come Look at the Freaks, is fascinating, tuneful and, showcases Dann Dunn’s terrific choreographry which continues throughout the show.
Even though the first act is exposition-heavy, it’s necessary. Audiences today must learn the story of the twins and be shown the world of the 1930s Depression-era before they can fully appreciate Daisy and Violet’s poignant story. After the detail-heavy first act, the show steamrolls into a second act that will likely leave you full of empathy and compassion to the struggles other people have been asked to carry through life.
Of course, none of this would work without a magnificent cast to bring it to life and Media Theatre has one! Jenna Pastuzek as Daisy and Ashley Sweetman as Violet are outstanding in demanding roles that require them to act and move as if their bodies were attached. They also have many duets and their voices blend exceptionally well. Their first song,  I’m Daisy, I’m Violet,  introduces two different personalities trapped in a body joined at the hip. Their final song, I Will Never Leave You, may leave you in tears. But don’t think the show is all sadness and pain. The vaudeville number, One Plus One Equals Three, performed by Buddy, Daisy, Violet, Ray, and Stuck With You, performed by Buddy, Ray, Daisy and Violet, are lighter, fun moments, well-performed and again showcasing Dunn’s inventive choreography.

I thought the whole cast was exceptional.

Kelly Briggs is commanding, creepy, and menancing as Sir. Darnell Abraham as Jake brought to life his character’s anger, strength, pain, and tenderness. His song “You Should Be Loved” is incredibly powerful. Susan Wefel does marvelous work bringing to life the characters of Auntie and the Bearded Lady. Brian Michael Henry nails his powerful song “It’s All In The Mind. Derek Basthemer as Buddy and Bob Stineman as Terry are terrific; not only are their voices pleasing, but they bring a nice depth to their characters, making us understand their choices and the conflicts they face.
Jennifer Povish’s costumes are lovely and add greatly to the show. Matthew Miller’s set design brings the audience into a sideshow tent and seats them on three sides of the action. He uses large screen-projections framed by a wooden crates to help set the time and mood of the scenes. Being seated so close to the performers adds to the show’s power. Troy Martin O’Shia lights the action nicely.

If you’re a fan of modern musical theatre, Media Theatre’s production of “Side Show” is a must-see! Don’t miss it!
It is on stage  through March 26. For tickets, call 610-891-0100 or visit mediatheatre.org.