By Sujata S. Mukhi
Directed by Steven Conde
Ongoing till Sept. 23
Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium
4th Floor, RCBC Plaza,
Ayala Ave., cor. Gil Puyat Ave., Makati City
THERE I GO AGAIN, making assumptions. Unsure of what I was watching, I judged the opening number “Come Look at the Freaks” of Atlantis Theatrical’s Side Show as a rip-off of the crazy popular, P.T. Barnum apologist of a film, The Greatest Showman. As the silhouette of actors doing Bob Fosse-like moves filled the stage, I told myself rather snidely, hmm, I’ve seen this before.
I’d seen it before only because I saw the movie first. Side Show originally opened on Broadway to a very short run in 1997, revived by Dreamgirls’ Bill Condon in 2014. That opening scene of The Greatest Showman was the copycat!
But if The Greatest Showman celebrates the showman and makes a side show of his freaks, Side Show paves the way for the freaks to shine front and center, from bearded lady to three-legged man, the hermaphrodite to Lizard Man, among a host of other oddities. The costuming, make up, and prosthetics were fascinating, and excellently executed. When the stage silhouette dissolves into an ethereally lit pair of women, you then know a different story is about to be told. The true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton (played, respectively, by Gab Pangilinan and Kayla Rivera), conjoined twins who throughout their childhood were displayed for pay, is brought to life.
More familiar are the Siamese twins Chang and Eng from the late 19th century, who eventually became significantly prosperous in the States after a life of touring and display. They were Confederate slave owners, and for a time accepted as members of the elite. They married two sisters, sired numerous children, and died a few hours apart.
The lesser known, less fortunate Hilton twins appeared onstage and in film, and, in the 1920s to ’30s, were a known vaudeville and burlesque act in the States. They married gay men for publicity purposes, and worked in a grocery store till their death in the late sixties, a few days apart.
Side Show’s narrative introduces the sisters as part of a traveling show, in subservience to their ring master called Sir (’90s band AfterImage lead vocalist Wency Cornejo), and their subsequent liberation from him with the help of talent scout Terry (Markki Stroem) and friend Buddy (David Ezra). The twins become famous with song-and-dance acts that play up their conjoined condition. They learn to cheekily answer rude and intrusive questions from the public (“Do you want a husband?” “No, I’m already attached!”).
They are even offered a role in a Hollywood movie. The thrill of that soon turns to dismay when the director jeeringly brandishes the name of the film, Freaks. (This was an actual film released in the 1930s that featured the Hilton twins among others in the cast that had real deformities. The film and the controversial cast is a fascinating subject unto itself).
The musical ends with a wedding to appease a spectacle-hungry crowd, ravenously curious at how a married threesome would work. The twins are at the peak of their success, and the production leaves out much of the misfortune that happens to them after.
By choosing to bookend the plot that way, Side Show, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, let go of the potential to be a tragic and dark exploration of exploitation and victimization. I frankly would have found that a more truthful story arc: to have carried it through the twins’ fading fame and distorted glory.
By making this a lighthearted Sister Act of outsiders wanting to fit in, one looking for fame and fortune and the other looking to settle down with a husband and family, it forces us to look at these not-ordinary women as ordinary women with ordinary desires. The musical softens what must have been a life of terrible compromise and survival, given their gender, conjoined condition, the time period in which they lived, and the presence of people in their lives using them for maximum self gain.
So it was not the story I wanted.
But it is to the credit of the two magnificent actors who play the twins, Ms. Pangilinan and Ms. Rivera, that Daisy and Violet are fully humanized. Externally, their conjoined condition is only hinted at through dresses sewn at the hip. That economy of design is all that is needed. But the actors’ synchronization of movements is seamless in a most organic way, as is their emotional connection to each other.
They are not two peas in a pod. They play characters with very different needs and wants, one an extrovert, the other an introvert. But when they sing “I Will Never Leave You” in a flashback that describes their sad childhood, or “Leave Me Alone” when frustrated at the lack of privacy; or when they express to each other their attraction to Terry and Buddy (who is suspected to be a closet homosexual), there is the affecting undercurrent of vulnerability that binds them, the pain of loneliness they share. The reprise of “I Will Never Leave You” toward the end takes on an even deeper poignancy at the change in their life’s circumstances, fully expressed by the pure voices of both Ms. Pangilinan and Ms. Rivera. It almost seems wrong to compare them as actors. Their interpretation of the twins is that dovetailed.
The vaudeville acts are cheerily choreographed, witty and entertaining. Mr. Stroem as Terry, who falls in love with the feisty Daisy, is earnest as always, and commanding. His angst-filled solo “Private Conversation,” as he yearns to spend literal alone time with Daisy, seems to come out of nowhere though. Such depth of emotion toward Daisy is barely hinted at earlier in the play. But that’s more an issue of the script.
Dependable Arman Ferrer, fresh out of his performance as the romantic lead in Binondo, plays Cannibal King Jake, secretly in love with and fiercely protective of the demure Violet. He sings a powerful “You Should Be Loved,” more rooted in context than Terry’s yearning. Jake the character is presumably a black man which explains why he is unable to publicly declare his love for her. (Such a racial overtone is a little challenging to portray with an all Asian cast, and can only be inferred through some referential dialogue or use of an accent that borders on stereotype).
The key role of the ringmaster, or Sir, should be held by an actor with grease and ease of movement. This role may not have been the right one for Mr. Cornejo’s maiden effort on stage. On preview night, he looked and sounded unsure and uncomfortable. Let’s hope he grows into the role as the days go by.
I’ve always lauded the tight ensembles in Atlantis productions. But there needed to be more tension in this troupe. The Side Show cast, already intrinsically interesting misfits, could be more characterful and as much a fit with each other as the twins are to one another.
Detouring for a while from home base Twin Bill Theater, Steven Conde directs not only for Atlantis for the first time but, if I’m not mistaken, has taken on his first musical too. Mr. Conde is best with intimate, searing productions. Wit and My Name Is Asher Lev dug painfully and deep—which is why the best scenes in Side Show are the quiet conversations and ruminations.
Unabashed voyeurism is timeless. Just take a quick scan of your morning newsfeed highlighting the latest celebrity scandal or downfall or fill-in-the-blanks kind of shaming (slut-, fat-, body-shaming, anything and everything-shaming). Side Show critiques the exploiters and the audiences of the exploited, but rather than being a cautionary tale the price of fame and infamy, it chooses to be at its heart about a pact of sisterhood and loyalty.