The sordid deformity of Side Show doesn't sneak up on you. It slaps you in the face with the opening words of the first song -- sung by a company that includes a carny boss, a reptile man, a bearded lady, a fortune teller and the obligatory geek (the circus sort who bites the heads off live chickens):
Come look at the freaks
Come gape at the geeks
Come examine these aberrations
For just pennies, we're invited to view "God's mistakes." I thought I was prepared to watch the story of the famed Hilton Sisters (1908-69) when the bio-musical opened on Broadway in 1997. But my first sight of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley as Siamese twins Daisy and Violet upset me in a way I'd never experienced before; eight gorgeous limbs branching out in all directions from one grafted body!
Viscerally, there was something inhuman -- insect-like -- about that silhouette. The borderline between carnival grotesquerie and Broadway glamour had vanished.
Skinner came down to Charlotte early in January to do a concert for Queen City Theatre Company. While she was here, Skinner presided over a master class for performers interested in auditioning for the QCTC production of Side Show, slated for a July 3-26 run at Actor's Theatre.
Aversion toward the freaks and the Hiltons, Skinner told me, was what kept audiences away from the original Broadway production -- and prevented them from connecting with the true core of the musical. After that brusque opening, it was rather remarkable how quickly Skinner and Ripley were able to win empathy for their plight and their aspirations. They were jointly nominated for a Tony Award that season.
Over 50 regional productions of the Bill Russell/Henry Krieger musical have been staged since Side Show folded after a mere 91 performances. Skinner gave a couple of reasons why she thought Charlotte audiences would be enthralled.
"Everybody in the universe has felt like they didn't belong or felt alienated from other people, from society," she said. "So at some point in the show, everybody is going to connect with the material. Another interesting thing is Daisy and Violet were actually down in that area of North Carolina for the last part of their life, which is kind of a heavy thought."
They're actually buried at Forest Lawn West Cemetery on Freedom Drive. Curiously. The twins' mother was a Brit barmaid named Kate Skinner. Not a model parent: She sold her offspring for cold cash.
Her namesake Emily has forged a beneficent connection with the upcoming Queen City edition of Side Show, drawing one of its co-stars all the way from Hickory with her Broadway aura. Sydney Shepherd will play Violet Hilton, beginning rehearsals after her current stint in a high school production of Working.
"I never really heard of the musical," Shepherd admits, "until a few months ago when I received an e-mail about Emily Skinner, who played Daisy on Broadway. So I went to the master class in Charlotte and sang for Emily. Then the director of Side Show, Glenn Griffin, said, 'Hey, you should come audition for Side Show.' So I did, and I got the part."
In real life, the Hilton Sisters ranged far. Trained by their managers to sing and dance, they were barnstorming Europe when they were still tots. Later in the United States, their careers ranged from the midway to vaudeville and ultimately -- after winning independence from their managers -- to Hollywood.
Russell's script, loosely based on the true life stories, takes the Hiltons from the midway to vaudeville. Love interests pop up for both sisters -- not a love triangle, but a love pentangle when all the complications are tallied. At its most original, Henry Krieger's score captures that zany vaudeville fizz. At other times, we get generic power ballads. But aside from the Sweeney Todd-like opening, there's a "Tunnel of Love" scene whose Gothic elements smack of Phantom of the Opera. A wonderfully creepy way to present the sisters' first make-out session.
Violet is the homebody Hilton. Alyson Lowe will be Daisy, the Hilton with the Hollywood aspirations.
"We'll be very good together," Shepherd promises. "We're about the same size, about the same height; we both have blonde hair, and I think the magic of costumes and makeup will do the rest."