It’s songwriter Henry Krieger’s time at Porchlight Music Theatre. The musical-theater composer’s Dreamgirls, a 1981 Broadway hit, is the final show in Porchlight’s 2015-’16 schedule next spring, while his Side Show—a two-time Broadway flop—is the company’s current season opener. Interestingly, both shows examine the loving but conflict-filled relationships between young women who share big dreams of romantic fulfillment and showbiz success. In Dreamgirls, with a libretto by the late Tom Eyen, 1960s soul singers Deena and Effie compete for the same man (their unscrupulous manager) but finally realize that their own bond is more real and durable. Side Show, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell, concerns real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Born in 1908 in Brighton, England, the Hiltons were joined at the hip, sharing blood circulation though no major organs. Initially presented as sideshow curiosities, the sisters eventually appeared in vaudeville, burlesque, and even motion pictures. Their fascinating story (including multiple love affairs and marriages) is recounted in Dean Jensen’s 2006 book The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton.
In Russell’s sentimentalized, highly fictionalized narrative, Daisy (Colleen Fee) falls in love with the sisters’ shifty booking agent (Matthew Keffer) and Violet (Britt-Marie Sivertsen) with their choreographer (Devin DeSantis), whose secret homosexuality isn’t revealed until act two—one of a surfeit of plot twists that take the place of psychological exploration. The show ends with the Hiltons embracing their uniqueness rather than trying to come off as “typical girls next door” by starring in filmmaker Tod (Dracula) Browning’s 1932 Freaks, but this resolution is highly misleading. The Hiltons only had small roles in the macabre and controversial movie, which was a failure in its original release; not until the 1960s, when vintage horror films began reaching a new audience via TV and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, did it begin to earn its deserved status as a cult classic.
A commercial failure on Broadway in 1997, Side Show was heavily revised in 2012 under the guidance of director Bill Condon, who helmed the triumphant 2006 screen version of Krieger’s Dreamgirls. Fleshed out with new songs and additional characters—including the Hiltons’ real-life fellow vaudevillian, escape artist Harry Houdini—the show played on Broadway in 2014, but could only sustain a short run. Porchlight’s current staging—directed by Michael Weber, with musical direction by Aaron Benham and choreography by Andrew Waters—is the first post-Broadway production of the new version. It’s a solid piece of work, with strong performances, an atmospheric set (by Megan Truscott), and some inventive lighting design (by Greg Freeman) and visual projections (by Ross Hoppe) of archival photos and film clips.
But nothing in the sentimental, pop-inflected score—with its predictable melodic riffs and often banal rhymes—approaches the best material in Krieger’s Dreamgirls. This complex tale deserves a better spin than Russell and Krieger’s pedestrian meditation on the cliche that everyone yearns for someone to “love me as I am”—flaws, oddities, and all. v