The setup: Side Show, with music by Dreamgirls' Henry Krieger, was not a Broadway hit upon its 1997 debut. The play about the fame of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made it out of the freaks' tent (but not too far) in the 1930s, is generally referred to as a cult favorite, although people who avidly follow little-known tuners seem to me more like geeks (the current definition, not the chicken-decapitating kind that's employed on stage) who display rarefied taste than they do alt-entertainment cultists.
Nearly Naked Theatre has, in any case, answered a lot of lonely fans' prayers by putting up a skillful and nicely glitzy production of the identity-affirming show.
The execution: Some "small" musicals don't call for much of a set and would even be hampered by a complex, detailed design. In such situations, costuming can do most of the work of creating mood, setting, and spectacle, and Theater Works' resident designer Renée Brown crushes with this one. It's hard to say whether the razzle-dazzle diversity of her sideshow freak costumes outstrips the succession of matching gowns, from humble to red-carpet-worthy, in which the Hiltons find themselves outfitted.
Add stunning and ever-changing wig designs by Terre Steed, who also plays the Boss, and you've got two characters who are completely mesmerizing before they even open their mouths. When they do, you'll realize that Hannah Zieser and Cassie Chilton thankfully have the chops to carry the show, which they do with sharp, able assistance from the rest of the ensemble.
Mark 4Man's musical direction, solid as always, includes a painstakingly recorded score. It's a little loud, depending where you sit, but it's also very good and serves the live singers the way it should.
Everybody nails it. Each cast member has gorgeous, funny, touching moments, and those who have solos and duets are, without exception, a special pleasure to listen to as Damon Dering's direction teases out profound emotional interpretations while keeping the melodic side of things proficient and powerful.
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I'm a party-pooper, I'm not afraid to admit, because I just don't see what the big deal is about this show. I'm pleased almost beyond measure that Krieger's songs come at appropriate moments in the action -- a bonus that is discernible even in a virtually completely sung-through score like this one. They just don't seem like super-good songs outside the context of their settings here, in which they're especially effective when sung by the two leading ladies and by Colin Ross (La Cage aux Folles, Rock the Presidents) as their friend, protector, and unrequited love interest, Jake.
Speaking of not just Ross, Zieser, and Chilton but also a lot of well-built, half-naked freaks, there's much welcome eye candy in this production of a tale that generally lets sexuality take a genteel, tiptoed-around back seat (except when it literally takes a front seat in the fully clothed but achingly tense "Tunnel of Love"). So opportunities for audience happiness are multifaceted and ever-present, is what it comes down to: You'll get to see difficult work done well and pleasingly. The verdict: By all means, experience and enjoy this Side Show. I had a great time, and I won't argue with the hundreds of audience raves -- Nearly Naked patrons tend to know what they're talking about. Had I more experiences that would make me aware how marginalized I probably am in this culture, I would likely appreciate the show's message even more.
But I'm looking forward to hearing how the coming season's revival (at La Jolla, the Kennedy Center, and then, fingers crossed, ideally onward to Broadway) turns out after its director, Oscar-winner Bill Condon (Chicago, Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters, and, yes, okay, both parts of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) finishes collaborating with Krieger and lyricist/librettist Bill Russell. The changes might address the "clunkiness" that some critics perceive in the simple, straightforward dialogue/lyrics, a quality other fans see as a virtue. Side Show continues through Saturday, June 8, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets currently start at $26 but are subject to dynamic pricing, which is based on supply and demand, so hurry up and click here to order or call 602-254-2151.