Don’t freak out: Brüka’s ‘Side Show: The Musical’ tells a sad tale with heart and humor

It’s a sad fact of human history that the strange and the bizarre have always been sources of entertainment.  

Though the days of selling tickets to see circus freaks may be gone, a quick look through today’s TV-channel guide proves that such exploitation is alive and well—copious reality shows about people who weigh 700 pounds, have had botched plastic surgeries and eat vile objects are all presented as entertainment. When we’re gawking, it’s easy to forget they are humans, with talents and dreams and feelings, just like the rest of us. 

Brüka Theatre’s newest production, Bill Russell’s 2014 revival of Side Show: The Musical, is a dramatization of the lives of real people—conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton—that puts audiences’ innate desire to exploit or disparage those who are different firmly in the spotlight.  

Performed almost entirely through song, Side Show tells the story of the Hilton twins’ rise to stardom during the Great Depression as a performing duo, the featured act in a carnival side show operated by a master of ceremonies known only as “Sir” (Andy Luna). The show is comprised of “God’s mistakes,” including a bearded lady (Cindy Sabatini), a dog boy (Bay Eaton), a tattooed woman (Kelsey Mato), a three-legged man (Kaymin Sambrano), the “human pincushion” (Aiden Billharz), a half-man/half-woman (Robin Soli) and the cannibal king (Michael Smith III). When musician Buddy Foster (Adam Semas) happens upon the twins and sees their talent, he invites a talent scout, Terry (Jeff Chamberlin), to come check them out.  

Terry and Buddy are captivated and want to learn more about the twins’ background. Both Daisy (Sophie Moeller) and Violet (Alexandria Pauletto) sing beautifully, but although they’re literally joined at the hip and frequently treated as one person, the men quickly discover that their personalities are quite distinct: Daisy craves stardom and excitement, while Violet wants nothing more than a home and family. But they have no home—Sir took them in when they were very young and controls their every move, abusing them harshly if they step out of line or question his authority.  

Terry makes them an offer: He’ll help make their dreams come true by making them stars. With Buddy’s help, the twins become wildly popular vaudeville performers. But when Terry asks Sir to cut him in on the profits the twins have brought in, Sir refuses. The girls now have to choose: They can stay in the only home they’ve ever known (“The Devil You Know”), or take a risk and leave with Terry and Buddy to go on tour as a vaudeville act (the devil they don’t). The “cannibal king,” their friend Jake, tries to convince them not to go, but the girls confess that they’ve developed feelings for the two new men in their lives, so they reluctantly leave their friends and hit the road.  

But fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While the twins’ act is a huge success, Violet’s dream of a home and family still seems out of reach. The reality of their situation—being unable to ever separate—sets in: One of them will always have to sacrifice herself to make the other happy. Yet who would each be without the other? Could anyone truly love them as they are? What do they value most, and what are they willing to sacrifice to have it? 

Jean Paul Rivard, such an indomitable talent onstage, proves his directorial chops are just as fierce. Side Show stands apart for its across-the-board talent. A local show presented almost entirely in song risks being bogged down by subpar singing, but I can happily report that the voices here are consistently strong. In particular, Pauletto and Moeller both have lovely, remarkable voices worthy of top billing, and their ability to simply stay connected at the hip while physically performing is admirable. Semas, a longtime presence in the area’s musical-theater scene, is both a strong singer and a talented actor whose portrayal of Buddy makes him vulnerable and relatable. Kudos also go to Smith as Jake, the twins’ confidante and loyal protector; his deep, powerful voice and intensity command attention. 

Although Side Show is touching, thoughtful and brimming with allegory, it never struggles under the weight of its own meaning. It’s an uplifting, funny, romantic, visually compelling production—just right for a summer night. 

Side Show: The Musical will be performed through Saturday, July 20, at Brüka Theatre, 99 N. Virginia St., in Reno. Tickets are $40 at the door, or $35 in advance, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 775-323-3221, or visit