Reviews/Musical Theatre

Young performers prove the main event

5 April 2022

WAAPA’s third year musical theatre students make the best of a bad lot in this revival of Side Show, a musical David Zampatti thinks we could have done without.

Side Show, WA Academy of Performing Arts (Musical Theatre) ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, Edith Cowan University, 1 April 2022 ·

Canny theatregoers know that the WA Academy of Performing Arts courses in Acting, Musical Theatre, Performance, Dance and Music offer the public a mouth-watering range of shows and concerts through the  academic year.

But let’s not forget that these productions are primarily part of the academy’s teaching program, and for members of its third year graduating class the final preparation for a career as a performer or theatre maker.

For that reason, WAAPA’s musical theatre programmers look for shows featuring large casts with a mix of starring, feature and ensemble roles, offering opportunities across all three of the “threats”. 

So when I say that the first third year music theatre production for 2022, Side Show, is a god-awful howler, that doesn’t mean the academy shouldn’t have done it, or that it isn’t done well. 

Peter Ho delivers an energetic performance. Photo: Stephen Heath

Side Show is the partly factual story of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (Taao Buchanan and Madeleine Betts), who had success as carnival and vaudeville performers in the Depression era. 

Rescued from their odious sideshow alley boss and legal guardian (Matt Hourigan) by a vaudeville talent scout (Justin Wise) and his musical director (Harry Fenn), they rise to fame, eventually “starring” in an exploitation film, cruelly titled “Freaks”.

While Side Show’s writers Henry Krieger and Bill Russell sympathetically present the lives of those who, through no fault of their own, attract the prurient interest of the public, they sail far too close to exploitation for my liking, and fail to let us see the world through the eyes of their characters. 

Add to that a score of uninspired, derivative and repetitive songs, many of which sound like outtakes from Les Miserables. Musical director Craig Dalton and his 16-piece band handle the orchestrations efficiently, but there isn’t much there to inspire them or us.

What pleasure there is to be had from Side Show is extracted by an astute staging (at short notice) by director Michael McCall, Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson’s snappy choreography, Emily Chong’s vibrant costumes and energetic performances in the character roles and the ensemble.

All the stock sideshow alley characters are on display – the half-man half-woman (Sarah Monteau), the fortune teller (the exuberant Ariana Rigazzi), the human pincushion (Eliza Carlin), the bearded lady (Hamish Pickering) among them, flitting in and out of Charli Strickland’s clever, semi-transparent set of outsize tent-show posters barking their dubious wares.

It’s the sewer beneath the boulevard of broken dreams, no place for a couple of girls as vulnerable as Daisy and Violet.

If their captors are villainous (Hourigan does a Dickensian turn with aplomb), their rescuers are not much better. Wise and Fenn bring out the duality of their characters capably, though there’s little to connect the characters to us. 

Only the girls’ loyal protector Jake, played with impressive feeling by Peter Ho, draws you in as he confronts his inevitable disappointment.

In the end, of course, Side Show is all about the twins. Buchanan and Betts give brave performances as the ambitious Daisy and shrinking Violet. If only the characters were more insightfully drawn, and their songs more memorable, they both showed they had the talent to grasp them.

As it was, they had roles I hope they never have to play again.       

Side Show runs at WAAPA until 7 April 2022

Pictured top: Taao Buchanan (Daisy), left, and Madeleine Betts (Violet) are the centre of attention. Photo by Stephen Heath

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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