Some stories easily lend themselves to musical theater. An old-timey circus sideshow with a cast of "freak" characters -- and the incredible true story of singing, dancing conjoined twins who became the toast of vaudeville -- is one of them. That story and setting, paired with a melodic score, strong performances and eye-catching visuals, make Foothill Music Theatre's current production of "Side Show" a winner.
"Side Show," written by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger (with additional book material added by Bill Condon for the 2014 revival), serves as a loose biography of the Hilton Sisters, who rose above their difficult circumstances to briefly achieve stardom in the late 1920s and early '30s.
Daisy and Violet Hilton, "Siamese twins" conjoined at the upper thigh, were born in England, basically sold as infants by their unwed mother, and placed on display by their abusive adoptive "parents," exhibited as medical oddities. At play's start, they've come to America, trapped in a sideshow act by their adoptive father, "Sir," who's convinced the court system the girls need him to "look after" (more like enslave) them, even though they're now legal adults.
In addition to the attention their physical condition attracts, the pretty twins also can harmonize sweetly. Bold Daisy dreams of fame, fortune and the new world of Hollywood stardom, while shy Violet longs for a simple, normal life. The two lay out the differences in their personalities and desires during their big "I want" number, "Like Everyone Else." They catch the eye of a down-on-his-luck vaudeville booker, Terry Connor, who is sure that, with the help of song-and-dance man Buddy Foster, he can make the girls stars. Though some of their fellow freaks warn the girls not to trust the pair, the sisters decide to try and escape the sideshow life. They challenge "Sir" in court, win their freedom and hit the Orpheum Circuit. Terry and Buddy succeed in making the girls' act a hit, but vaudeville's days are numbered. Furthermore, Daisy and Violet find that even after their show-biz success, their lives are still lacking in many ways. Violet and Buddy get engaged, despite Buddy's seeming preference for members of his own gender and the unrequited declaration of love Violet receives from her devoted friend and bodyguard Jake. And though fiery Daisy and Terry have strong feelings for one another, Terry finds himself unable to see a future with Daisy unless she and Violet undergo a risky separation surgery, something the sisters, despite their differences, are unwilling to risk. The bond between the twins -- both physical and emotional -- is stronger than any forces from the outside world.
The story is undeniably compelling (yes, modern audiences are still intrigued by human oddities, albeit viewed through a sympathetic lens), and the fact that it's based on real people makes it all the more so.
Foothill's production (directed by Milissa Carey) is polished and vibrant. As Daisy and Violet, respectively, Jessica LaFever and Lauren Meyer are perfectly matched, moving seamlessly as one and singing in glorious harmony, with LaFever's strong voice demonstrating Daisy's sultry side while Meyer's dulcet tones highlight Violet's sweet and innocent persona. Sean Okuniewicz balances Terry's greedy hustler side with his underlying vulnerability, and Tarif Pappu is charming and funny as the over-eager, boyish Buddy. As the malevolent father figure and sideshow barker, Sir, Ken Boswell is riveting. Edward Clark, as Violet's would-be paramour Jake, offers an emotive performance and rich vocals during his two standout numbers, "The Devil You Know" and "You Should Be Loved," even if he struggles with pitch at times. The talented ensemble members get the chance to play a number of roles, including the twins' sideshow comrades, nosy reporters, ominous doctors, high-society swells and Texas rubes. Everyone gets a moment or two in the spotlight.
The music itself is pleasant and stirring, if sometimes unremarkable. The numbers that the twins present as part of their act ("Typical Girls Next Door," "Stuck With You," "One Plus One Equals Three") are written and arranged in the jaunty style of period-accurate musical-hall songs, while the rest of the score has a more generic light-pop style, providing contrast between the twins' on- and off-stage experiences. And although at times the novelty songs come off as "Chicago" and "Cabaret" knock-offs, the orchestra (conducted by keyboardist Dolores Duran-Cefalu) sounds terrific, with percussionist Andrew Maguire given many chances to shine.
Costume design for such an eclectic band of sideshow performers, not to mention conjoined twins dressed in the glamorous height of flapper style, must have been a blast for Shannon Maxham and she's up to the challenge, along with the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew.
"Side Show" offers a rewarding and entertaining glimpse into the lives of two ultimately rather sad, exploited figures. Daisy and Violet Hilton may never have been able to live the lives of their dreams, but as the stars of this musical, they at least get the chance to show the humanity behind the freak show.
What: "Side Show"
Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: Through March 19, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to Foothill Theatre.