MIT Musical Theater Guild
La Sala de Puerto Rico
November 6–7, 12–14 at 8 p.m.
The MIT Musical Theater Guild opened their Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) last weekend, and in keeping with a long-standing sideshow tradition, offered an experience that was different and unforgettable. Of course, the metaphor collapses when you realize that, contrary to being the stuff of nightmares, MTG’s Side Show is not only enjoyable but is one of those rare musicals that elicits drama without resorting to character death (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Mr. Whedon) or deux ex machina.
Make no mistake, Side Show is not a comedy, so if you walk in expecting a happy ending, you may be surprised, although you’d have to be really, really attached to the missing sunshine and flowers to actually be disappointed with the show. It’s full-fledged drama through and through, with familiar themes like unrequited love and not-so-familiar themes like finding acceptance as a conjoined or “Siamese” twin.
The story of Side Show focuses on conjoined twins Violent and Daisy, played by Kimberly A. Brink ’10 and Rachel Coffin, respectively. The characters are written as brilliantly talented singers, and both Brink and Coffin are more than equal to the task. As far as I can tell, the pair’s vocal abilities are superb by any standards, professional or otherwise. In spite of not having brought along any of my Perfect-Pitch-O-Meter friends along when I saw it, I honestly doubt that even they could find any fault with either female lead. While on the subject, the orchestra pit also holds up well under constant pressure.
Side Show has the quirk of being almost entirely sung with little (if any) spoken dialogue, adding an extra challenge for the cast as well as for director Priscilla W. Army ’10. Army, in her first directorial position with the Musical Theater Guild, comes out strong, as the leads are also fairly phenomenal in their acting roles. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the juxtaposition of the main characters’ emotional arcs is hit-you-over-the-head literal in their side-by-side comparison. A special mention also goes to Carlos E. Cardenas ’09 as supporting character Joke. Cardenas, a staple of MTG shows for quite some time, not only sings and acts convincingly but leads one of the most exciting musical numbers in Act I, an upbeat, swingy affair that engages most of the ensemble.
Even though Side Show is a drama and consequently short on laughs, emotion and frills still run rich. In particular, the musical is set in the heyday of vaudeville, and the handful of vaudeville-esque musical numbers (featuring more puns on Siamese twins than you can shake two conjoined sticks at) feel authentic without being entirely corny. The only thing missing is a rendition of “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” and one number in Act II comes surprisingly close. It’s mild cheesiness in the name of realism, and it plays well.
Even taking into consideration that I went to the opening night showing, Side Show is not a perfect show. The vocal precision of some cast members sets a standard that not all can hold up, and if you’re not like me and tend not to get swept up in shows as easily as I do, the romantic plotlines might feel bland. That said, if you are like me, don’t be surprised if you find yourself on the brink of tears at any point during Act II. The drama runs high, as it tends to do with the subject of love, and the performers are solid. If that doesn’t convince you, I’ll word my recommendation as simply as I can — I’m thinking of seeing it a second time. Upcoming performances are tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in La Sala de Puerto Rico.