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Paulanne Simmons

"Side Show" Makes the Weird Wonderful

SIDE SHOW -- Terry Twins: (l to r) Matt Witten as Terry Connor, Tiffany Diane Smith as Daisy Hilton, and Kristen Sergeant as Violet Hilton. Photo by Sean Sime.

"Side Show"
Directed by Matt Schicker
Gallery Players
199 14th St. between 4th and 5th aves.
Opened Feb. 18, 2006
Thurs.-Sat 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$15, children and seniors $12 (212) 352-3101
Closes March 12, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 25, 2006

Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in Brighton, East Sussex, England on Feb. 5, 1905 to a single barmaid named Kate Skinner. When they were two weeks old, their mother sold them to her landlady and midwife, Mary Williams, who soon began exhibiting them all over the United States and Europe.

When Williams died she bequeathed the girls (whom she had given lessons in singing, dancing and playing various instruments) to her daughter, Edith, and Edith's husband, a balloon seller from Australia. Together they managed the twins until 1931, when Daisy and Violet filed a lawsuit and were awarded $100,000 in damages and their independence, enabling them to leave sideshow circuses, which they detested, enter vaudeville and appear in the film, "Freaks."

Over the years, the girls had numerous affairs, failed attempts to get a marriage license and several short marriages. Eventually they settled in Miami and opened a hamburger stand. A while later they made one more film, "Chained for Life," went back on tour and were finally forced to work in a grocery after their manager abandoned them in Charlotte, North Carolina. They died in 1969 of the Hong Kong flu.

Even in the world of Broadway, the Hiltons are bizarre subject matter for a musical. Yet in 1997, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger's "Side Show," opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre. It ran for only 91 performances but was nominated for four Tony Awards.

Those who missed the musical nine years ago now have another chance to see this strange and moving show, thanks to Park Slope's Gallery Players. Directed by Matt Schicker, the show stars Tiffany Diane Smith as Daisy Hilton and Kristen Sergeant as Violet Hilton, the two identical but very different sisters who yearn for fulfillment in a world that regards them as freaks.

Daisy is outgoing. Violet is shy. Both are looking for love despite their impossible situation. Daisy thinks she's found it in Terry (Matt Witten), their vaudeville manager. Violet believes her true love is Buddy (Jimmy Hays Nelson), his partner. But the only one who can see beyond their condition is Jake (the excellent Melvin Shambry), the former Cannibal Man, who declares his feelings in the passionate "You Should Be Loved."

Side Show has a large ensemble of midway freaks – a Bearded Lady, Snake Girl, Half-man Half-Woman, etc. – exotically costumed by Melanie Swersey. But it is propelled not so much by bizarre physiques as by very sincere emotion. Smith and Sergeant have beautiful, evocative voices that work well together. And Side Show has a score that might well have become classic if the show itself were not so offbeat.

The Gospel-inspired "The Devil You Know," the Busby Berkeley-esque "Rare Songbirds on Display" and the exquisitely choreographed "New Year's Day" all have energy and sparkle, and make the most of the Gallery Players' small stage.

It can't be easy for one actor to be attached to another for an entire play. But Smith and Sergeant perform so effortlessly it's almost a surprise when, at the end of the show, they take their separate bows.

Schicker has a great sense of the absurd and the sensitivity to make the absurd poignant. "Side Show" gets off to a slow start (the opening number "Come Look at the Freaks" is much too long and after a while the actors impersonating impersonators gets somewhat stale), but the show soon hits its stride, and from then on it's riveting.

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