Unlike their previous efforts, which have blurred the boundaries between the disabled and the rest of society, the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League's latest endeavor emphasizes those differences to the point of utterly transcending them. In what proves to be a magnificent theatrical achievement, PHAMALy's regional-premiere production of the Broadway musical Side Show binds performers and audience in a poignant blending of pathos and cruelty, passion and humor and desire and acceptance.
Based on the true story of Siamese twins who appeared in circus sideshows and vaudeville during the Depression, the Tony-nominated work by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger captures theatergoers' attention from the very start. To a five-piece band's live accompaniment, the company of actors, all of whom are disabled, processes into the Space Theatre while singing "Come look at the freaks/Come gape at the geeks/Only pennies for peeks." Whipped to a frenzy by their overseer, the hard-drinking Boss (Don Mauck), the "monster babies" and "men with rabies" form a circle and face the audience in a display that's as repulsive as it is compelling.
Then we're introduced to the Hilton twins, Daisy (Kathleen Traylor) and Violet (Katrina Weber), whose conjoined condition is suggested rather than explicitly depicted. (Weber, who is ambulatory, places herself against Traylor's wheelchair; the actresses face away from each other for nearly the entire show.) But despite the girls' protestations that they want to be appreciated for who they are, a show-business huckster, Terry Connor (R. Matthew Deans), and his sidekick, Buddy Foster (Mark Dissette), offer to promote the pair--whose beautiful singing voices make them even more of an oddity--as a specialty act in their traveling vaudeville show. In time, Buddy becomes attracted to Violet and proposes to her, dashing the hopes of Jake (Christopher Simmons), a sideshow holdover who serves as the act's stage manager. Things get even more complicated when Daisy pops the question to Terry, who is, well, beside himself when faced with questions of intimacy.
Composed of rhyming couplets that lend the story an elevated though comfortably formal tone, the 135-minute musical is given a superb staging by director Don Bill and his spirited ensemble. In addition, Bill's splendid production team, led by choreographer Debbie Stark and musical director Mitch Samu, lends the show a first-rate look and feel. During such complicated group numbers as "We Share Everything," which features a chorus of dancing, barge-toting Egyptian slaves, and the candidly sensual "Tunnel of Love," in which two stagehands gracefully pilot the quartet of lovers and their watercraft through a maze of light and music, the designers' choices unceasingly ennoble the actors' efforts. (Pete Nielson designed the lights, Lisa Orzolek the scenery, and Rhoda E. Pillsbury the costumes.)
And nowhere do the production's disparate elements merge more effectively than near the end of Terry's powerful aria, "Private Conversation," a sung monologue that illustrates the anguished man's dream-like conversation with an unfettered Daisy. Appearing briefly without her twin, Traylor joins hands with Deans, who pulls her wheelchair about as he sings, "I need to tell you I want you for my own." Bathed in a wondrous mixture of romantic hues and strains, the two finish their dance as Deans releases Traylor, who glides to the other side of the stage to join the silent, stock-still Violet. The breathtaking moment is made all the more magical by Deans's heartrending delivery, which, in terms of emotional depth and scope, rivals anything to be found on the operatic stage and towers over the fluff of local musical ptomaine. The heroic Deans is ably supported by Dissette, Traylor, Vigil, Simmons and Mauck, who each render portrayals of uncluttered frankness and measured intensity. Never once do their heartfelt pleas devolve into diatribes of self-pity.
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Still, the performers' artistry can't gloss over a few uncomfortable moments, nor should it. A roving band of reporters, for example, echoes the public's ever-testy relationship with the media when one scribe asks whether the men are interested in scoring a "doubleheader" with the girls. And when a wheelchair-bound Simmons gives voice to Jake's question "If I can see past your affliction/Why can't you see past mine?" those words take on a different meaning than they would in a production without disabled actors. So does a line spoken by the sightless Mauck, who answers Terry's initial query about Daisy and Violet's physical state by sputtering, "Are you blind?"
Ultimately, though, Side Show is a tale of undying love and abiding self-acceptance--qualities that PHAMALy's version conveys like no other. The book on PHAMALy has always been that, though they may be a group of talented individuals, they're mainly well-meaning folks in wheelchairs who deserve a properly sympathetic audience. On the strength of this production, that nugget of conventional wisdom seems soft-centered. A truer take on PHAMALy's worth as a theatrical troupe might be the twins' exchange near play's end: "Anything's possible--when everything's right."
Side Show, presented by PHAMALy through July 25 at the Space Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100.