Side Show

sideHuge ensemble casts were a hallmark of 1930s theatre, which was largely driven by government funding of the Federal Theatre Project as part of the Works Progress Administration. A cast of 30 clearly generated more employment opportunity than a cast of 4, so large ensembles became the norm. While the musical Side Show was first performed in 1997, it is set in the 1930s. It nods to its Depression-era contemporaries with 25 characters, which Split Stage Productions fills with a cast of 19, still a sizable commitment by today’s standards where the one-man show reigns supreme as economic safeguard. Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) traces the career trajectory from sideshow to vaudeville of real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.

Side Show begins thoughtfully long before you’re seated. A 1930s period sideshow poster for the Bearded Lady hangs outside the Apple Hill Playhouse, waving flag-like and setting a tone of the exotic. As you enter, Split Stage skillfully manages to engage the theatrically neglected olfactory with the wafting scent of fresh popcorn luring you under the proverbial big top. Sideshow act posters line the lobby walls, including one for the Invisible Man – cleverly blank. A poster of The Sheik and his shimmying Harem Girls smiles alluringly as you ascend the stairs to the theatre. Inside, music director Joy Morgan Hess’ choice of tinny ragtime player-piano music provides a peppy accompaniment to more sideshow poster boastings.

In a metatheatrical moment, director Jim Scriven chooses to start the show by projecting the movie poster for Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks onto the curtain. This now cult-classic about a sideshow featured the real-life Daisy and Violet Hilton as well as other actual sideshow “freaks” of the time. The curtain is gauze-like, and through this shrouded veil, the show’s freaks filter onto the stage, belting out “Come Look at the Freaks.” They are each damaged in their own way, and the gauzy curtain feels like a bandage, a thin protection against a cruel world that’s violently yanked off as the curtain rises. Sideshow owner and master of ceremonies, Sir (Joe York), introduces each freak, commanding them to manifest their talents, saving Daisy (Rori Aiello Mull) and Violet (Victoria Buchtan) for his final reveal. A tattered suit and frayed tophat complement Sir’s Snidely Whiplash mustache. He is a cruel profiteer who treats his ensemble as property, not people, yet York keeps Sir from lapsing into dismissible stereotype.

The lifting of the curtain and stage lighting highlight the flaws in Alicia DiPaolo and Jim Gracie’s prosthetics and make-up. The prosthetic outlines on the Human Pin Cushion (Nate Newell) are easily visible, and the Geek’s (Mike Hamilla) long bulbous nose is obviously lighter in tone than the rest of his face. These distracting defects are correctable attentions to detail that could heighten the sideshow illusion instead of detracting from it. In our first glimpse of Daisy and Violet, Scriven artfully chooses to elevate them on a platform above the others, visually signifying their importance. They are also backlit, making their height difference obvious. Finding two actresses of the same height and build is obviously a challenge in casting conjoined twins, but Mull’s Daisy is several inches taller than Buchtan’s Violet, and even though Buchtan wears higher heels, the height difference is hard to ignore and takes you one more step out of the illusion.

However, Mull and Buchtan clearly trained in tandem and walk in absolute lockstep. Their Daisy and Violet move with surprisingly natural ease, even in awkward positions where you expect them to falter. Costume designer Sharon Wiant commendably creates costumes that both highlight their conjoined status and trace their shift from Sir’s tight-fisted sideshow operation to the bright lights of vaudeville. When Sir first introduces them, they are wearing little more than thin white nightgowns. In their first vaudeville appearance, they wear slinky red dresses, black feather boas snaking through their limbs as they seductively belt out “Ready to Play” surrounded by a black-suited male revue with red bowties, ready for their audience to imprint some version of a ménage a trois fantasy onto them.

Conjuring fantasies is a larger metaphor for their lives as they live pinball-like, always a means to someone else’s end without asserting their own needs or having them appropriately considered. Terry Connor’s (Tyler Brignone) quick sales pitch lures the twins from sideshow to vaudeville with startling ease, undoubtedly aided by his clean-cut good looks and black suit. At times, Brignone struggles with staying in character. He’s supposed to be in love with Daisy and claims to be enraptured by the sisters, yet while they pour their hearts out singing “Like Everyone Else” in answer to his question of what they want, Brignone looks distracted and unfocused. While Connor does deliver on his vaudeville promises, he’s ultimately another opportunist looking to use the sisters to advance his financial gain and fizzling career as a talent scout. Whether it’s Sir or Terry, both men perennially refer to Daisy and Violet as “girls.” They’re sexualized on one hand but infantilized on the other as not able to properly care for themselves and needing a strong, guiding male hand.

When I was growing up, we weren’t a daytime TV kind of family, which is perhaps why I have such a clear memory of watching Tod Browning’s Freaks with my father one weekend afternoon. I must have been about 10, dust motes swirling in the air as the afternoon sun tried to part the drawn curtains as if we were in our own big top tent. Looking back, I think it was my father’s way of teaching me a lesson on tolerance and inclusion. After all, in the film, the sideshow’s freaks have the moral compass while the “normal” looking people prove to be liars and cheats. Things aren’t always what they appear. Go ahead, peek behind the curtain, get your freak on, and you’ll find something you like at Side Show.

Side Show runs at the Apple Hill Playhouse through October 14. For tickets and more information, click here. 

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall: 2017 Edition

The dog days of summer are behind us and it’s time to look forward to a fall full of refreshing musicals. Our 2017 Top Five Fall Musical Theatre Preview shows feature two Tony Award winning “big” musicals Kiss Me Kate and Annie, The Good Bye Girl, Side Show and Clue round out our preview. These shows won’t bust your budget with ticket prices that hover around $20. Here they are in order of opening dates.

goodbyeNeil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl at the Theatre Factory kicks off our 2017 Fall Musicals Preview.

Egotistical actor Elliot Garfield sublets a friend’s Manhattan apartment only to discover it is still occupied by his friend’s ex-girlfriend Paula, a former dancer, and her precocious pre-teen daughter Lucy. Initially suspicious and antagonistic, Elliot and Paula arrive at an uneasy truce. Paula, fed up with being hurt by boyfriend-actors, rashly vows never to become involved again while Elliot sets down the rules for the living arrangements.

While they attempt to cohabit as peacefully as possible, despite their differences of opinion and temperament. Elliot and Paula find themselves attracted to each other. When Elliot finds a job out-of-town, Paula realizes that this is the true love she has been seeking, and they reach a happy ending

The Good Bye Girl September 14th to 24th at the Theatre Factory in Trafford PA.  For tickets please call the Box office 412 374 9200 (leave a message on voice mail) or email: 

sideSide Show asks the question that haunts us all: “Who will love me as I am?”

This Tony nominated Best Musical tells the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became famous stage performers. Their extraordinary bond brings them fame but denies them, love. The story is told almost entirely in song, and follows their transition from England to America, the vaudeville circuit, and then to Hollywood on the eve of their appearance in the 1932 movie Freaks.

Rob Jessup one of Split Stages co-founders tells me this will be “the first production of the 2014 revival in this area.” The revival delves deeper into the backstory of the Hilton twins including their relationship with Harry Houdini and the concept of proposed separation surgery.  It will be interesting to see Split Stages interpretation of the characters which inhabit the side show community that support the ladies.

Side Show is Directed by Jim Scriven with Music Direction by Joy Hessand and Choreography by Laura Wurzell. Rori Mull and Victoria Buchtan play Daisy and Violet.

Split Stage’s production of Side Show is at the intimate Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont with performances October 6th to 14th. For tickets visit. 

ClueClue at the Little Lake Theatre gives the audience a change to help solve this “who-done-it.”

The musical is based on the popular board game. It brings the familiar suspects of the game to life. The audience chooses the potential outcome from cards which represent the murderers, weapons, and rooms – there are 216 possible solutions! Comic antics, witty lyrics, and a seductive score carry the investigation from room to room.

This show has made the rounds of university and community theatres in our area this past year. However, Little Lake Theatre has a reputation for producing quirky off beat shows that work well in their cozy “theatre in the round” environment and the intermission desserts are top notch also. If you haven’t seen Clue yet, this is the place to see it.

Clue at the Little Lake Theatre, October 12th to 14th, 19th to 21st and  26th to 28th

for Tickets

WebPosterKATEThe Tony Award winning best musical Kiss Me, Kate at the Pittsburgh Playhouse features music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Point Park University with its nationally recognized musical theatre and dance programs do a great job with big musicals and over the top dance numbers, so expect a lively and fun filled production of this 1949 classic.

The story involves the production of a musical version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the conflict on and off-stage between Fred Graham, the show’s director, producer, and star, and his leading lady, his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. A secondary romance concerns Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca, and her gambler boyfriend, Bill, who runs afoul of some gangsters.

Point Park University’s Head of Musical Theatre, Zeva Barzell directs and choreographs this show bringing favorite numbers like Too Darn Hot to life on the Rockwell stage with the talented students of the Conservatory. (Point Park is #8 in the number of graduates on Broadway this season, CMU is #4.)

Kiss Me, Kate runs October 20th to 29th with a preview on October 19. For Tickets visit

annie300x300Stage 62 presents Annie our second Tony Award winning Best Musical choice for the fall.

With equal measures of pluck and positivity, little orphan Annie charms everyone’s hearts despite a next-to-nothing start in 1930s New York City. She is determined to find the parents who abandoned her years ago on the doorstep of a New York City Orphanage that is run by the cruel, embittered Miss Hannigan. In adventure after adventure, Annie foils Hannigan’s evil machinations… and even befriends President Franklin Delano Roosevelt! She finds a new home and family in billionaire, Oliver Warbucks, his personal secretary, Grace Farrell, and a lovable mutt named Sandy.

This depression era show was first produced on Broadway in 1977 and is Directed by Rob James, Choreography by Devyn Brown with Musical Direction by Cynthia Dougherty. The Stage 62 troupe always seems to be having contagious fun performing, Annie should be no exception.

Annie presented by Stage 62 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Carnegie. Performances Thursday to Saturday, Nov. 9th to 11th and 16th to 18th at 8 pm, Sunday matinees on November 12th and 19th at 2 pm. Tickets at:

Our top five is just a small slice of a dozen or more musicals playing this fall in our area, So check back with PITR throughout the season. There is a show for almost every taste from two with high stepping dance number to ones with almost no dancing at all and four of our five are “all about love.”

Split Stage Wraps a Successful Third Season, Announces an Ambitious Fourth

Split Stage Productions, co-owned by Westmoreland County’s Rob Jessup and Nate Newell just wrapped up a successful third season of three shows; Spring Awakening, Carrie and Cabaret.

Rob and Nate saw untapped potential for an innovative addition to the community theater circuit in Westmoreland County and founded Split Stage just over two years ago.

Spring Awakening brought Director Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre, Choreographer Aaron Cook and Music Director Ben Bedenbaugh to The Theater Factory in Trafford; both a new creative team and a new theatre for Split Stages. Carrie was staged at the Apple Hill Playhouse, a creepy old barn just perfect for a Halloween show. The season closed with Cabaret, it was their first full musical at the newly restored Lamp Theatre in Irwin.

Rob credits the willingness of these new locations for “Welcoming Split Stages with open arms. From holding dates to opening both front doors to the community and back doors to the theater’s resources.  We couldn’t ask for better venue partners.”

I asked about the challenge of keeping your loyal audience while moving to different theaters in different towns.  “What might have caused some push back from regulars turned to a surprising upside along with new audience members welcoming an edgier than usual fare at their neighborhood theater. They became Split Stage followers from show to show.“

Split Stage’s mission is to bring to the Westmoreland County area quality, high caliber theatre with top-notch production values to an ever-expanding audience. Rob and Nate’s long-term goal is to produce works that continue and grow upon that tradition.

Toward that end, they have just had their “not for profit status” confirmed and obtained their IRS 501c3 certification yet still keeping one foot planted on the edge and the other firmly on the commercial side.

Season three carries on the tradition, but grows the season to four productions. Here is what’s on tap:

chicagoFirst up is a production of the original 1976 version of Chicago produced in association with Westmoreland event producer Kelley Simon, it plays at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg June 2nd and 3rd. Jim Mikula directs, Laura Wurzell choreographs and Eric Barchiesi is Music Director. Mandie Russak (seen in Cabaret as the MC) plays Roxie Hart and Victoria Ashley (from Spring Awakening) is Velma Kelley.

side showSide Show plays October 6th to 14th at the Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont. Rob envisions that the side show experience begins as soon as you park your car. There will be jugglers, knife throwers, and other surprises. Side Show is a musical by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became famous stage performers in the 1930s. Side Show is slated to be directed by Jim Scriven.

that time of yearThat Time of Year is this year’s holiday show playing December 15th to 17th at the Lamp Theatre in Irwin. It’s not a sappy Christmas musical, but a more realistic depiction of the holiday season. Jim Scribin directs this musical revue of 25 all-original Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s songs run the musical gamut from show tunes to rock, blues and jazz

last 5 yearsThe season closes with the musical The Last Five Years. It plays at the intimate Theatre Factory stage in Trafford January 26th through February 3rd.

This is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers. Jamie and Cathy are both in their twenties and fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show uses reverse storytelling; Cathy, is a struggling actress, who tells her story in reverse while Jamie, a rising novelist, reveals his story chronologically from when they first met.  The two characters play opposite of each other and are only together on stage once, at their wedding, in the middle of the timeline.

Split Stage co-owners Rob Jessup and Nate Newell present an ambitious fourth season for focused on bringing top-notch theatre to the Westmoreland County area. Season three’s selections are diverse and engaging. Consider taking in a show or two brought to you by a talented group of theatre folk.

For tickets and more information about what Split Stage Productioins has to offer, click here. 

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