Thursday, June 26, 2014

Side Show at The Kennedy Center

Once upon a time, there was a well-reviewed musical about the life of the conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.  Unfortunately it opened in a Broadway season that included the original production of Ragtime, the acclaimed Roundabout Theatre revival of Cabaret and some little Disney musical, oh, yes, The Lion King. Side Show played a total of 31 previews and 91 performances. It received a total of four Tony nominations, including the first and only time that two actresses were nominated jointly for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

Side Show has a small, yet very devoted following and it has had several regional theater productions. The Kennedy Center brings to Washington DC a revised production that originated at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California last winter. Featuring a revised book that places more emphasis on the Hilton sisters background and several new songs, this version of Side Show pulls on your heartstrings in ways that do not feel like a manipulation. The hopes and desires of two sisters, forever joined together, dreaming of different lives yet always returning to their strong sisterly bond is universal despite the sisters unique situation.  Ironically, Side Show' s 1998 Tony rival (and winner of Best Musical) The Lion King is playing next door in the Kennedy Center's Opera House. Allow yourself to step inside the Eisenhower Theatre for an beautiful, melancholic evening.

The revised book (and lyrics) by Bill Russell, with additional book material contributed by the show's director Bill Condon shapes a story closer to the Hilton sisters real life. A new series of songs, music by Henry Krieger, illuminates the girls birth in England, adoption by the abusive "Auntie" and relates how they came to be in the legal guardianship of the owner of the Side Show, "Sir." The three men who help the girls leave 'Sir" for a career in vaudeville are slightly more fleshed out, motivations and secrets seem more clear. Some Broadway message boards lament the removal of the song "Tunnel of Love", but here, it's replacement "Coming Apart At The Seams" fills the same function as in the original.

One of the most stunning achievements is are costume (Paul Tazewell), wig and hair design (Charles G. LaPointe) and make-up design (Cookie Jordan) for the other members of the side show attraction. These elaborate designs must be quickly donned and removed several times and it is a remarkable achievement. In particular a revelation about one costume at the curtain call is a true "wow" moment.

Ryan Silverman is a showman with a torn conscience as Terry Connor. Matthew Hydzik well-meaning despite a character development that is apparently more clear than in the original production. Their affections for the girls, is well matched by David St. Louis as Jake, the "Cannibal King" who truly loves the girls, particularly Violet just the way they are.  Mr. St. Louis has a strong voice that is occasionally betrayed by less than crisp vocals.  Robert Joy is appropriately slimy as Sir.

Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are well-matched as the Hilton sisters. There are moments when the action seems to revolve around them rather than include them, but the skillful choreography (Anthony Va Laast) and Mr. Condon's direction use the actresses ability to be both individual personalities and yet forced to move as a single unit.  Ms. Davie (Violet) is occasional overpowered by Ms. Padgett (Daisy) when the duets call for belting. Perhaps a bit more focus on blending their rather beautiful voices would fix this minor problem with their performances.

The Kennedy Center is to be commended for helping bring Side Show back in a major retooling. Perhaps with good word of mouth they will get the sold out houses that this production richly deserves.

Side Show is being performed in The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre through July 13, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, June 23, 2014

It Takes A Community (Theater) To Raise The Barricades

You can spend hundreds of dollars to see spectacular musical theater on Broadway, or travel to the nearest major city to see touring productions. But, in the heartland of America quality theater thrives. They are not Equity actors and the sets do not include multimillion-dollar turntables hoisting a two-ton barricade.  Community theater occasionally gets a bad reputation, it’s amateur, critics decry. Yet, I argue, community theater can be captivating and engaging ways that professional theater can fail to do.

In my hometown of Jonesville, Michigan, The Sauk Theatre (formerly the Hillsdale Community Theater) is performing one of the very first licensed amateur productions of Les Miserables. The President of The Sauk Theatre, Trinity Bird delivering his curtain speech commented that when the current revival announced its plan to open on Broadway this spring, Music Theatre International nearly pulled their license to perform the play. It was the simple fact that the theater had fewer than 250 seats that saved the day.

I began my theatrical career in that very theater back in 1972 when I was eleven years old. My first shows included productions of 110 In The Shade, Carousel, The Music Man and Oliver! The casts were large, the 1974 production of Oliver! had a cast of 62, and families and friends built the sets, played in the orchestra, helped sew costumes and sold tickets. Many of the younger members of those casts in my era caught the performing bug. Some went on to study the arts, having careers as varied as actors, singers, playwrights, a local television anchor/editor and even a world-class magician. Even those among my generation who grew up in the arts and chose different career paths  found that this experience with the performing arts still affected their lives in a positive way.

That’s what community theater is really all about.

As I revisited my earliest theatrical home I smiled as the cast of 49 beautifully sang and acted Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s incredible score. The ensemble includes students, teachers, a pastor, a nurse, yet they all convincingly portray the downtrodden masses of Paris, and the idealistic firebrands that are the doomed university students at the barricade. Unlike on Broadway these students at the barricade are actually students, making their doomed uprising that much more poignant. The orchestra occasionally rehearsed in the First Presbyterian Church's coffehouse, Grounded In Grace.

Packed houses.  $10 a ticket, $ 8 for seniors, $5 for students. A cast of 49. An orchestra of 15.  A crew that built a modest set and barricade and sewed costumes. All volunteering their time.

That’s what community theater is really all about.

So raise a glass, not to the “Master of the House”, but to :

A father of five with a degree in music who hopes to become a teacher with the voice and soul to match the many Valjeans who have graced the professional stage and screen

A young lady planning to study opera in college

A ten-year-old charmer stealing his scenes as Gavroche

A young woman excited to be playing her dream role of Fantine

An elementary resource teacher who would only give up her profession to become a back-up singer for a rock star

A veteran of community theater making his return to the stage after a 13-year absence who is a band and choir director and has served his country for 30 years in the US Army and Army Reserve

An eight year old making her stage debut.

That’s what community theater is really all about.

Les Miserables is being performed at The Sauk Theatre in Jonesville Michigan through June 29, 2014. Good luck getting tickets, but if you happen to be traveling through the town on US 12 in rural southeastern Michigan, give the box office a call at 517-849-9100 or online

If you aren’t in the neighborhood, seek out the community theater in your neck of the woods.  You’ll discover the arts are thriving there as well.

That’s what community theater is really all about.