The Vexler gets its freak on

Critics didn’t quite know what to make of Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Sideshow when it first landed on Broadway in 1997: The dark, quirky production about the tribulations of Siamese twins confounded all expectations for a pastiche ’30s musical. Audiences, however, voted with their feet, and within weeks another socially-conscious show was, well, kicked to the side. In one of the more cringe-worthy moments in award-show history, the original leads, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, were nominated for a (gulp) joint Tony Award, a decision that blithely overlooked the entire point of the piece: that “freaks” are always socially-constructed, and that for all of their togetherness, the sisters (and the actresses!) were individuals first, twins second.

The Vexler’s current production presents a mixed case for the merits of this cult musical, with several strong casting and creative choices, but also some real head-scratchers. First, the good: As conjoined San Antonio twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, Stephanie Bumgarner and Kimberly Stephenson nimbly trace their characters’ arc from naïve “freak show” products to genuine vaudeville celebrities. While we’re unlikely to see Conjoined Dancing With The Stars anytime soon, Bumgarner and Stephenson prove that “freakishness” can easily be — too easily? — transformed into entertainment, especially when combined with Michelle’s Pietri’s witty choreography. Pietri’s hilarious dancing spoof of ’30s Egyptomania demonstrates the fun of walking like a (conjoined) Egyptian, and the two leads handle their difficult singing and acting tasks like pros. (Karl Hedrick ably serves as musical director.)

Unfortunately, some baffling casting choices undermine the musical’s potential as a more affecting piece of theater, particularly in the romantic subplots. As Terry, the businessman who first scouts the twins for the vaudeville circuit, Wade Young struggles with the demands of the score; singing is clearly not Young’s forte, and yet it’s the sort of musical with plenty of big, introspective ballads: not a happy combination. As Buddy, Terry’s partner-in-business, Danny Romo proves himself a nimble song’n’dance man in the second act, but never convinces as a Lothario with the hots for Violet, even as Terry lusts for Daisy.

But there’s stranger casting yet for the role of Jake, the twins’ confidant and protector since their side-show days. This fifth wheel in the musical’s ménage a cinq (not quatre, thanks) was originally conceived as an African-American character — a co-worker who, like Buddy, falls in love in Violet. His race, it turns out, freaks out even the freaks: Violet will have nothing to do with him romantically (thereby cleverly juxtaposing race as yet another mechanism for social ostracism in America).  In the Vexler’s production, Jake has been cast with a Latino actor; while this is confusing enough, Jake’s successful rival is also Latino, so it’s impossible to see why race is an obstacle, unless Violet is pathologically fickle. (Except for this perplexing casting, Luis Ramos is excellent in the role.)  As the sadistic side-show boss, J.T. Urick overplays the role into caricature.

As he has sometimes done in the past, Ken Frazier assumes both technical and artistic direction. His simple set and spot-on lighting allow for the appropriate demarcation of scene, though the banners above the stage appear faint and unfinished. The evening’s most demanding sequence — “The Tunnel of Love” — is still, to date, Broadway’s most successful production number built around vaginal symbolism. (In the Vexler’s frenetic staging, the tunnel is more like a cervical Tilt-A-Whirl. Six Flags, eat your heart out!) Tami Frazier’s period costumes evoke both the shabbiness of the twins’ side-show days as well as the faux-glamour of the vaudeville circuit.

 So: This is absolutely a noble attempt at a difficult show, but one that can’t quite pull off the creators’ deep cynicism about America and the crushing pressures of conformity. The large ensemble shimmies (or in the case of The Reptile Man, slithers) its way through the musical numbers with flair, but at heart, this is a chamber piece about imperfect people — conjoined or otherwise — and the production soars or sinks on the contributions of a few. Still, the musical’s core concern — of an America that hypocritically demonizes “freaks” while extolling individualism — is ever timely. And when’s the last time you saw a musical that served up Charlestons with social justice — on the side? 



7:30pm Thu
8pm Sat
2:30pm Sun (5/18,6/1, & 6/8)
Through June 8
Sheldon Vexler Theatre
12500 NW Military
(210) 302-6835