"Side Show" is a musical about conjoined twins who become stage performers. Photo Courtesy Ashley dePencier Photography

From the eerie start,Side Show,” a four-time Tony nominated musical opening tonight at Cal Poly, is disturbingly intimate as the lights gradually illuminate a stoic crowd of carnies staring at the audience, inviting them to “come look at the freaks.”

Set around a circus company — including the familiar acts of fortuneteller, bearded lady, contortionist and even a fat lady — the show explores the true story of conjoined sisters, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who struggle to identify themselves apart from ‘circus freaks’ and transform into vaudeville superstars during the 1930s.

“Side Show” examines how society exploits people for the wrong reasons.

“I have always been very sensitive to people with disabilities, the struggles they are faced with, the amazing things they are capable of,” said Raquel Jarman, a theater senior who is directing the show for her senior project.

But the process for the Hilton sisters doesn’t develop in Rogers and Hammerstein fashion, Jarman said, as it was originally written in 1997 by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (book and lyrics).

A couple of entrepreneurs rescue the sisters from an abusive, drunk boss and make them famous, but at a cost more than the group bargains for — a theme Jarman has seen in her own life.

“Nobody in their right mind would direct a musical (as a senior project),” said Jarman. “I haven’t slept more than four hours in weeks.”

Jarman, music senior Morgan Hurd, along with choreographer, theater junior Natalie Roy, have been working with the cast of 16 and a small orchestra since December. Complicating the process, the group held rehearsals in the computer science building while the Cal Poly Black Box theatre — The Davidson Music Center, room 212, where the show will take place through Sunday — was occupied by “Julius Caesar” rehearsal and class lectures.

Moving into the actual performance space was critical to bring all the elements together in front of an audience — an opportunity the actors benefited from at Monday evening’s ‘dressed-pre-dress’ rehearsal, Jarman said.

The creative team had to go through the appropriate channels for department approval and pay a high price for royalties. Just for permission, they had to pay $11,000, but they had help from the department and family members.

All in all, the senior project is more than some expected it to be.

“It’s much better than it seemed it would be during the first several weeks,” said biochemistry and chemistry senior Victoria Doroski, who plays Violet. “The cast is extremely talented and the show has taken shape the way it needed to.”

For the audience, there is a heavy pull into the world of the freaks. There is a natural, obvious connection to Daisy (theater senior Ashley Merchak) and Violet, two sympathetic but outlandish characters who leave the audience distant but concerned.

“The show shuffles between turmoil and tranquility, constantly in contrast,” Doroski said.

The love interest, Buddy Foster (theater junior Max Sopkin), falls for Violet, but is determined to believe that he can love her as she loves him, again a feat more than what he bargains for. The writer toys with the audience, asking them to connect with Foster’s quirky, humorous charm, only to later disregard his own struggle to accept Violet and her other half. Daisy’s interest, Terry Connor (music graduate Rory Fratkin), finds himself in the same predicament.

“Daisy and Violet are very two-dimensional. You see the girls in black and white, but it’s the witnessing of the gray — the struggle, the hope that is in these two,” Merchak said.

But the show is more about what the audience sees in itself by looking through the lens of the characters.

“There is this great invisible device in the show that gets (the audience) to realize they are looking at themselves. Its like a mirror-effect on the audience,” Jarman said. “Very powerful.”

“Side Show” opens tonight at 7 p.m. in the Black Box theatre and runs through Sunday, Mar. 14. Show times are Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, contact Christina Venezia, 415.672.0780 or cmvenezia@gmail.com. Tickets may also be available at the door before each performance for $8.

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1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the time spent on writing an article about our work, but I was expecting more of a review. What it is is mainly a synopsis and a “heads-up”.

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