Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
The big question this raises: ("Gooble gobble") Is Side Show Director Ann Marie Hall, "one of us" in the classic sense? After all the comic marvel turned director doesn't sing or dance. That's her story, anyway, in spite of strong evidence she might be underselling. But friends (and gawkers), occasionally ask how it can be that someone who'd rather tackle a meaty role (or stay home and host a horror movie marathon) than participate in most musicals, winds up directing extravaganzas like Into the Woods, and the first rate production of Side Show, opening this weekend at Theatre Memphis.
"There's lots of complex stuff happening in this one," Hall says. "The story's great, the music's gorgeous... it's all accessible, and the music just glides over you.
Side Show (right up Hall's aesthetic alley), tells the semi-true story of the conjoined Hilton twins, Violet and Daisy — Human oddities bound together by a thin ribbon of flesh. While the musical may smooth over the never-ending horrors of their seemingly successful lives, there are no happy endings here. Just when the twins — sold at birth, and raised as objects to be gawked at or fondled for money— seemed to be getting everything they ever wanted, the curtain comes down. There's some evident cause for celebration, but the audience clearly sees how a show that began inside an exploitive freak show, has also ended with one.
"A lot of it's about accepting our differences: Embrace your own freak.," Hall says, before quoting Side Show's most affecting song. "Who will love me as I am," she asks. "This is every one of us."
For Side Show Theatre Memphis' designers have, with the simplest gesture, turned the whole theater into a big top tent. Great effects, and superb performances make for a memorable night of theater.
Theatre Memphis has had incredible success with gloomier musicals like Cecelia Wingate's darkly glittering productions of The Addams Family and Young Frankenstein. Side Show is less overstuffed, and can afford to be. The material's so much better, there's no need to rely on spectacle overdose. But, of course, there's some of that too.
"The show is not 'about' pedophilia or sexual abuse," says Tony Isbell, who stars as Ray, who had an abusive relationship with Una when she was 12, and he was 40. The play is set 15-years after the abuse. "It's about how these two people deal with their shared past and how they struggle to find a way forward when they finally meet again," Isbell says. "Or at least that’s part of what it’s about. It’s also about the power dynamic between men and women; the nature of love; the slipperiness of truth and memory; and the mystery of human existence. Hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious, but it’s all in there."
Even if it does sound a little bit pretentious, it is all in there. Blackbird is Quark theaters first production.
Crowns pulls a Hat Trick
If I haven't missed anything, Hattiloo's Crowns is Memphis' third major production of the moving gospel musical. Crowns uses "church hats" as the entry point for an exploration of Black cultural identity. Crowns is told from the point of view of a young woman leaving the personal tragedies of a northern metropolis to rejoin family in the South. This is no Lidsville — these hats tell some extraordinary stories.
Take the Pilgrimage. See Violet at GCT Not only is Violet a personal favorite, it promises to be the most excellent fit for a narrative musical at Germantown Community Theatre since the company staged Spitfire Grill, a few seasons back. I mention the latter, because both shows are steeped in Americana and truck in sonic, and emotional authenticity. But Violet takes more risks, and yields more rewards.
Based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Beasts of the Southern Wild author Doris Betts, Violet tells the story of Violet Karl, a wounded young woman on a pilgrimage to Tulsa, OK to meet with a televangelist and faith healer. Her face was disfigured when she was very young. The head flew off her father's axe while he was chopping wood and... it was awful. It's continued to be awful. This leap of faith is her last shot. Lord of the Flies Goes Primitive
I'll have a fuller review of Playhouse on the Square's Lord of the Flies online shortly. Simply said, director Jordan Nichols goes minimal, and guides a mostly teenage cast through one of the most harrowing pieces of teen fiction ever written. There are ritualized moments that, while well conceived, threaten to go full Broadway musical. Still, of you're fan of this bleak, too relevant story of divisiveness and human nature, you'll want to drop in on this one. And sometimes, you may want to look away.
Comedy, Comedy Everywhere
As if all this wasn't enough to choose from, the Memphis Comedy Festival's happening all over Midtown this weekend. Lots of standup, and lots of improv too. Check it out.