Note the fine print on Sideshow, created by Jenna Bean Veatch and playing at the Annex Theatre (through May 16; tickets). It is not to be confused with Side Show the 1997 Krieger and Russell musical. Like the Broadway musical this production includes a singing set of conjoined twins and that’s about all the shows have in common—be grateful.
Sideshow is simple, charming, sweet, and completely devoid of power ballads and schmaltz. Instead we have a largely wordless clown/dance fable set to a cappella folk songs and alt-pop incidental music. That the show doesn’t entirely hold together does little to diminish its charms.
Sideshow is a variation on Frank L. Baum, in which a young woman struggles to find her place in the world. Launched by inborn talent she strives to greater achievements meeting some camaraderie and possible romance but never overcoming her sense of failure till she comes to terms with her own identity. The twist in this is that our central character is a hunchback (Naomi Russell) and her comrades are an urban family of freaks.
The greatest strength of this production is in its art direction. Puppets, costumes, and sets are all of a piece in their simple efficacy. There are a couple of wonderful reveals that depend both on excellent design and performer commitment, including entrances by Jenna Bean Veatch as Daffodil, the Jaundiced Girl, and Steven Gomez as the wonderfully surreal Tree Man.
The show also makes smart use of a projection screen shared by Team of Heroes: Behind Closed Doors, with which it runs in repertory. The other great strength is in Russell’s performance. Her innocence and transparency cannot be resisted and the precision of her physical work almost makes up for the storytelling weaknesses.
Storytelling is not the only challenge in this show. The Bearded Lady (Wylin Daigle) along with Veatch’s Daffodil are the least compelling characters of the main quartet. For Veatch this is partly a problem of writing. Daffodil has no obvious talent or even interest as an act—though she eventually flies for no apparent reason. This does not support the Hunchback’s central search for identity. That the Bearded Lady is also presented as a contortionist but comes off as more of a semi-advanced yoga practitioner doesn’t help either. Thankfully Daigle is a great stage presence.
These characters could be clowns of Beckettian pathos but, with the possible exception of the Tree Man character and Russell’s performance, they don’t go to that extreme either. The contrast between the presumption of talent and ultimate failure is not strong enough to achieve comedic ends. Still, Russell remains sufficiently engaging to carry us through all this if not for a messy climax that lacks commitment yet precipitates the resolution. Without resorting to mime vocabulary a silent conversation of inarticulate arm gestures reveals the man behind the curtain but not the content of her solution. It’s the physical equivalent of a Charlie Brown parent-teacher conference.
The outcome of that conversation is clear enough, yet the ending is only mildly satisfying at best, but then this an all-around mild show. It’s so relaxed it seems to sink into a hammock rather than play. With tighter writing and greater clarity in direction Sideshow could be a great piece. Fixing a couple jarring elements would also help. These include mismatched tones in the dropped pipe sound effects and a hunch that looks more like a massive low-slung goiter than kyphosis.
Let’s also have more live music! Veatch’s own composition is a highlight of the show as are the folk songs wonderfully rendered by Christine Francesca Mondelli and Jillian Vashro as the Conjoined Twins. With the derelict carney aesthetic, the puppets, the haunting folk melodies, and a brief bit of concertina this has all the makings of a hipster commodity. Raise the stakes on the circus acts, toss in a ukulele, and we’re there.