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Queens of the Midway 

Plus, CPCC's one-two punch

Ambivalence is at the core of Side Show, a musical that begins by assaulting us with freakish physical grotesquerie before inviting us to empathize with the universal longings of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, queens of The Midway. Residing among "God's mistakes," as the ensemble calls themselves, the Hilton Sisters are comfortable thinking of themselves as subhuman when we first see them. Small wonder: They had always been treated and – with wide-eyed fascination – regarded that way.

Real-life mother Kate Skinner thought of the twins as God's punishment for her sexual indiscretion and sold them to her midwife/employer, Mary Hilton, a few days after their birth in 1908. Hilton began capitalizing on their commercial potential within days, exhibiting them as the Brighton United Twins at her tavern and never letting them forget they were monsters.

As carnival curiosities, they traveled Europe and Australia before reaching America in 1916. In Bill Russell's deft rewriting of history, there are no guardians -- neither Mary Hilton nor Myer Myers, the son-in-law who succeeded her upon her death. Only a drunken carnival Boss tethers them when Daisy and Violet make their entrance during the Great Depression.

An aspiring song-and-dance man, Buddy Foster, sees the Hiltons and lures promoter Terry Connor to The Midway. After working for a couple of weeks behind the Boss's back on a cute novelty number, Foster convinces Connor, the Hiltons, and the confraternity of freaks who watch protectively over the sisters that they have what it takes to make the jump to vaudeville.

Separating the twins from their makeshift family is nearly as traumatic as separating the twins from each other would have been. I've now seen three versions of Side Show, including the current Queen City Theatre Company production at Spirit Square. While this wrenching separation doesn't match the anguish I witnessed last month in Denver -- in a production by PHAMALY, an all-handicapped theater company -- this Act 1 climax at McGlohon Theatre actually carries more wallop than the original Broadway version of 1997.

Awkwardly yet provocatively, the benevolent exploitation of Foster and Connor intersects with the fulfilled yearnings of the Hilton Sisters in the frontiers of romance and publicity. Can these liberators love and accept the Hiltons as wholeheartedly as the freaks? In a true carnival masterstroke, the universal question posed by Daisy and Violet at the end of Act 1, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" gets answered deep in Act 2 -- as the freaky foursome rides through the "Tunnel of Love"! Two of the best Russell/Henry Krieger songs sparkle in these anchoring episodes.

QCTC artistic director Glenn Griffin dispenses with some crucial Side Show seediness in his somewhat minimalist staging, while music director Marty Gregory makes due with overly thin instrumentation (a reed player would be a godsend) and some lackluster voices, particularly among the guys. Benjamin Brian McCarthy as Buddy and Steven Martin as Terry do connect superbly with the Hiltons. More importantly, they powerfully project their own inner turmoil.

Although Griffin separates them far more often than necessary, presumably to emphasize their individuality, Alyson Lowe and Sydney Shepherd are marvelous as the Hiltons, in some ways, the best I've seen. Lowe is Daisy, the twin who craves glamour and celebrity, while Shepherd -- making her Charlotte debut at age 17 -- is Violet, the one who values home, stability and family. So together, they paradoxically "want what everyone wants." The freshness, ardor and vulnerability of these twins are the strengths of this fine dual portrait.

Vulnerable or not, the Hiltons make one very worldly business decision at the end of Side Show. It propels them to Hollywood and their first movie, Freaks. Tod Browning, the director who made the 1932 film, appears in a pivotal cameo.

Kristian Wedolowski is the most abrasive Boss that I've seen, barking out his vocals in a thick South American accent -- perversely inspired casting. Likewise, Marcus Sherman seems to be on an unusually low-protein diet as cannibal king Jake, the carny who really can love Violet, but he's achingly earnest ("You Should Be Loved"), and sheer wiry intensity enables him to stand up against the squeamish white guys.

Two adept artists, Jeff Capell and Martin Barry, are on the make-up brigade, and a team of three designers collaborates on the magnificent costumes, Stuart Williams, Leighton Aycock, and Wigboys. Aycock's silvery bird-of-paradise outfits are particularly eye-popping in the Act 2 vaudeville opener, "Rare Songbirds on Display."

Though Emily Skinner, the original Daisy, counseled against it before she offered her master class for QCTC at Booth Playhouse back in January, Griffin has resurrected "She's Gone," Violet's response to "Buddy's Confession" near the end of the show. One of Griffin's best decisions, as it happens. Even better is his decision to bring Side Show to Charlotte, where the Hilton Sisters spent their last years, 1962-69.

CPCC Summer Theatre has a fine one-two punch mornings and evenings. For the kids at Halton Theater, Aladdin showcases some seriously colorful silks from costumer Jennifer Matthews and some infectious musical comedy onstage. Nic Bryan brings a boyish Jim Carrey charm to the title role in this Asiatic take on the famed Arabian Nights story, but Adam Morse as the Genie of the Lamp -- and the Bling -- mightily steals scenes from him. Prime example, his hip-hop "Good, Good Genie" anthem.

Come evening, a devilish Robert Simmons plays homicidal tennis has-been Tony Wendice at Pease Auditorium, nicely partnered with Caroline Renfro in Fredrich Knott's mystery thriller, Dial M for Murder. Tony Wright is Wendice's murder minion, and Jonathan Ray makes a fine debut as Scotland Yard detective Hubbard, unraveling the confusion caused by a pair of scrapbook scissors. Don't spoil the fun by watching the movie version first. From the excited buzz of last Thursday's audience, M is better that way.

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