Idyllwild Arts stages musical ‘Sideshow’

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Based on true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton

Adina Chis and Katie Hahka star as conjoined twins who achieved fame in vaudeville in Idyllwild Arts Academy’s spring musical “Sideshow.” “Sideshow,” with music by “Dreamgirls” composer Henry Krieger, was nominated for many Tony awards, and is a powerful and moving production.
Photo by Marshall Smith

Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins, born in the U.K., who achieved extraordinary success as a singing and dancing act in the U.S. in vaudeville. As young girls, various caretaker/managers exploited them as sideshow freaks, physically abused them and kept them in penniless servitude.

When the sisters were 23, they sued their managers, gained freedom from their contract and were awarded $100,000 in damages. The twins later found glamorous success on the vaudeville circuit. But as vaudeville faded and the twins aged, the sisters once again fell on hard times.

Idyllwild Arts Theatre Department presents “Sideshow,” a multiple Tony Award-nominated musical based on the lives of the Hilton sisters. “Sideshow” has book and lyrics by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger, Grammy winner and Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominee for “Dreamgirls.” It is an important musical in the American musical theater lexicon, given its soaring and beautiful score and the emotional complexity of its characters and its challenging subject matter.

“‘Sideshow’ is a large undertaking,” said Director Heather Reba. “We have a cast of 23 students, and an orchestra of nine, eight of whom are music department students. Among the cast, 12 actors portray more than one character, with multiple costume and wig changes.

“The show involves dance production numbers, a nearly sung-through score [minimal dialogue], and specialty costumes and makeup to portray the different sideshow personalities. On top of these demands, our two leading actresses are literally joined at the hip for the entire performance, which makes for interesting staging, choreography and costuming challenges.”

Reviewers of the original Broadway production and subsequent revivals have stressed the emotional depth of the show, especially the contrasting personalities of the sisters and their very different personal needs and goals.

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times captured the divergent dreams and longings of the sisters in the headline for his review “United by life, divided by dreams.” Writing about the 2014 Broadway revival, Isherwood observed, “‘Sideshow’ invites us to do much more than come look at the freaks, as the electrifying opening number beckons. It asks us to step inside their skins and feel what it’s like to be celebrated one moment, rejected the next, and to have the strange consolation of a companion who shares it all: the joy, the hope, and the frustration” — a companion who is never able to be separated from the other.

The musical asks us to experience and question what is normal. “Diversity is a concept we struggle with in our culture,” said Reba. “It is a constant battle to be kind to those who are different than we are and to tolerate those who threaten our image of a perfect society. It is more comfortable to surround oneself with what one knows, people who are of similar ilk, others who don’t challenge our way of thinking. We gravitate toward the normal, but what is ‘normal’?”

In today’s politically and socially intemperate climate, the quest for an inclusive “normal” seems out of reach. The “other” remains the “other,” and normal is defined by those with the agenda and power to do so.

“Sideshow” is probably more topical now than when it opened in 1997. Come see where you fit in: Do you recognize any part of yourself in the sideshow’s freaks or are you a comfortably “normal” and distanced spectator intrigued by the sideshow’s oddities.

Reba and Bonnie Carpenter’s design concept makes you part of the sideshow the moment you enter the theater. You will have many ways to join in, be part of the sideshow and leave wondering what is “normal.”

“Sideshow” opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5, at the IAF Theatre (Bowman) on the Idyllwild Arts Academy campus. It plays again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7. There is no charge for admission as is the case with most IAA entertainment events.

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  1. My husband and I attended the Friday night performance of Sideshow. All of the actors did an incredible job. Adina and Katie (playing Daisy and Violet) were amazing! I assumed they were “attached” via their costumes, but evidently their attachment was with sheer determination and great acting positioning themselves next to each other. Watching them dance and walk down stairs as one was really great amazing. Kudos to all involved with this wonderfully executed production. We look forward to the opportunity to attend future shows at Idyllwild Arts.

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