Nobody could accuse the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre of opting for safe, reliable productions after its decision to stage Side Show — a musical based on the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who became famous in the 1920s for performances that highlighted their unique lives.
The director of the Civic’s production, Jay Berkow, said he first saw Side Show about 20 years ago when he was living in New York City. He was also friends with several of the original cast members who performed the musical on Broadway. Despite glowing reviews, the show never garnered major national attention and the Hilton sisters remain largely unknown. Side Show has instead become a cult classic.
“A lot of theaters are reluctant to stage this because it’s not a name show,” said Berkow, director of music theater performance at Western Michigan University. “There are certain shows I’ve always wanted to do and this is one of them.”
The story of the sisters has been an ongoing fascination for Berkow, who hopes to immerse audiences in the duo’s life.
“The biggest challenge is to engage the audience completely in the story, which will be done as a series of Vaudeville vignettes and flashbacks to real-time sequences,” Berkow said.
Drawing viewers in will be physically challenging for the majority of the cast, especially Lindsay Powers, who plays the role of Daisy, and Allie Ruppert, who plays the role of Violet. To prepare, Powers and Ruppert have been rehearsing in a pair of shorts that they share to mimic being conjoined at the pelvis as their characters were. They also are spending non-rehearsal time practicing movements like sitting, dancing, climbing up and down stairs, and walking as one person.
“Not only do we have to be on stage for almost two hours singing and dancing, we also have to do all of our costume changes backstage together and that’s going to be physically taxing as well,” Powers said. “Allie and I are going to spend a lot of time with each other, and will spend some weekends moving around each other’s houses as one. We’ll be trying to live as they lived.”
In casting the roles, Berkow was tasked with finding two women who looked enough alike to convince the audience that they are twins, while also having the ability to express their individual needs and desires. They also had to be able to sing and dance together.
Members of the ensemble cast likely will be challenged by the physicality of their roles as well, with other characters including a female snakeholder, a “Dog Boy”, a woman with no arms, and a man with three legs. Each of the characters is based on a real person who performed in circus sideshows or in Vaudeville.
“The actors have to create their characters purely through body work,” Berkow said.
There will be little room for error in conveying the story to the audience because of the intimate nature of the Civic’s Parish Theatre. The venue is a theatre-in-the-round, which means audiences are able to see the actors from a variety of different vantage points.
To prepare for the role of conjoined twins prior to the start of rehearsals, the lead actresses watched a documentary about the Hilton sisters called Bound by Flesh. The film included some surprising choices the sisters made, such as staying conjoined even after learning that they could undergo surgery to be physically separated.
Side Show explores the consequences of this choice with a scene that shows Violet receiving a marriage proposal and the impact that has on Daisy, who also wants to be in a relationship.
“They decided to live as one person because they didn’t know how to live any other way,” Powers said.
As their fame began to fade and their fortune began to dwindle, the sisters tried their luck within the burlesque community. After a fairly unsuccessful run in promoting their films and various performances, the sisters landed a small ad campaign for Phillip Morris promoting Twin Pack Potato Chips at a Park ‘N’ Shop grocery store in Charlotte, N.C.
Impoverished and desperate, the aging sisters implored the owner of the Park ‘N’ Shop in Charlotte to take them on full-time, incentivizing the prospect by stating that he would only have to pay for one person. And so the grocery store’s break room became their stage. Supported by the local church and the surrounding community, the twins enjoyed the simplicity and solace of life out of the spotlight for the remainder of their days.
“Daisy got some sort of Hong Kong flu and she died first,” Powers said. “Four to seven days later, Violet died after drinking herself to death because she was still attached to Daisy.”
The Civic production ends about the time that a movie produced about the sisters by MGM Studios was to be released. The movie was pulled from release after studio officials decided that audiences would not want to watch characters with disabilities on the big screen.
“We often think of marginalization in terms of race or sexuality. One of the unaddressed issues is people who are truly different,” Berkow said. “Although Daisy and Violet were combined in life with each other, they also have this incredible support for each other.
“The way the show is constructed in this circus-like atmosphere, it’s very engaging and you can’t take your eyes off of it.”
For showtimes and tickets, visit kazoocivic.com.