We’re all freaks

Butte College stages elaborate musical with a message

Sami Birtola (left) and Kaila Davidson as the conjoined Hilton sisters.

Sami Birtola (left) and Kaila Davidson as the conjoined Hilton sisters.

Photo by jesse merz

Side Show shows Friday-Saturday,7:30 p.m. & Sunday,2 p.m., Nov. 2-4.
Tickets: $10-$18
Butte College Black Box Theatre
Main campus, ARTS Building, 3536 Butte Campus Drive, Oroville

Jesse Merz, Butte College’s theater arts instructor, seems to like big musicals about unlikely subjects.

Last year at this time he directed a Butte College Drama Department staging of Urinetown: The Musical, a politically charged satire filled with dancing and song.

Merz and his student crew are are back this year with a similarly ambitious and unlikely musical, the 1997 Broadway extravaganza Side Show, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell, and music by Henry Krieger.

This elaborate production, with its cast of more than 30, is loosely based on the true story of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins—attached at the hip and buttocks—who in the 1930s became a hugely successful song-and-dance act on the vaudeville circuit.

That success, however, came only after years of performing in circus sideshows, along with various other “freaks,” as they were then called.

At the center of everything are the twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton (Sami Birtola and Kaila Davidson, respectively), two distinct women who, because of a biological quirk, are forced to share every moment of their lives together.

Where Violet is shy and introspective and wants nothing more than to have a husband and children and a home, Daisy is adventurous and wants a Hollywood career. This difference in their natures is compounded by outside forces—various managers and would-be lovers—who attempt to manipulate the twins for financial gain.

The sisters ultimately prevail, in large part because of their sheer talent. And here Birtola and Davidson shine brightly. Both women have wonderful voices and a delightful stage presence. They excel not only as vocalists, but also in their roles as sisters whose lives are inextricably knotted together. The women are like mirrors for each other and the audience, revealing both the joy of their intimacy and the frustrations it causes.

Two songs in particular speak to this deeply felt emotional conflict, the anthemic “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You.” It’s impossible to hear these beautifully rendered songs and not feel compassion for the women they describe.

The rest of the cast is fairly typical of student productions, long on enthusiasm but a mixed bag when it comes to vocalization skills. Some of the strongest performances are given by the ensemble, beginning with the electrifying “Come Look at the Freaks,” which sets the tone of the entire production. The man making that exhortation, the slimy sideshow boss Sir, is nicely played by Jarrod Jackson.

Kudos also to Matthew Stone, who plays the talent scout Terry Connor, who falls in love with Daisy. His signature song, “Private Conversation,” about the frustration he feels because of the inability to be alone with her, is a highlight.

Side Show is being performed in the Butte College Arts building’s spacious black-box theater. It uses a minimalist but effective tiered set (designed by Robert Pickering) that allows the many actors to move freely about the stage. Complex but unobtrusive lighting (designed by Michael Johnson) adds to the effectiveness of the stage set.

There’s also an excellent six-member backstage band, directed by Christine Buckstead.

In many ways Side Show is a story about community. As different as the “freaks” are, they offer love and a sense of belonging to Violet and Daisy that isn’t available from the rest of society.

The same might be said of the community of actors, technicians, directors, musicians, dancers and choreographers who are presenting this delightful musical.