The Portland Players community playhouse first opened its doors 80 years ago.

To celebrate this remarkable milestone, the theater is closing out the season with an entertaining period piece, set in the era of its inauguration.

Ten years ago, Portland Players’ former president, Brian P. Allen, directed a successful run of “Side Show” about real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Allen, now the executive and artistic director of Good Theater, returns to direct the musical and again help Portland Players welcome patrons to step inside the big top and “look at the freaks.”

As Portland Players was opening its doors in 1931, the 23-year-old, British-born Siamese twins were making their debut.

After years of toiling as sideshow freaks throughout the world, the sisters got out from under the oppressive thumb of their management and embarked on a journey into the world of vaudeville and Hollywood movies. 

“Side Show” is loosely based on the twin’s meteoric rise to notoriety.

“Side Show” premiered on Broadway in 1997. The musical, which is sung throughout, was written by Bill Russell and features a prominent musical score by Henry Krieger. 

For Portland Players’ rendition, Allen enlisted the talents of Victoria Stubbs as musical director for the six-piece orchestra. Tyler Sperry (“Roustabout”) brings the accompanying dance numbers to life as the choreographer.

The production stars Jen Means as Daisy and Marie Dittmer as Violet. The two deliver standout performances. Although literally joined at the hip, Daisy and Violet had disparate personalities. Means and Dittmer capture their uniqueness. And the two performer’s sweet harmonies leave you believing that they, too, were one voice, split at birth.

Means and Dittmer are beautifully featured on several memorable duets, including “”When I’m by Your Side,” “Who Will Love Me as I Am” and ” I Will Never Leave You.”

Twenty performers complete the cast as fictionalized characters from the twins’ lives. Mark Dils and John U. Robinson step into leading roles as Terry and Buddy, the two men who convince Daisy and Violet to leave the sideshow for vaudeville.

Dils is nicely showcased in “Private Conversation,” as is Robinson in the delightful “One Plus One Equals Three.” 

Mathew Begin is eye-catching as a Roustabout at the sideshow, performing Sperry’s choreography with grace and agility.

Julie Michals heads up the remaining cast of sideshow “freaks” as the Boss at the sideshow. The eclectic cast includes Nate Williams (Jake the Cannibal), Gerry Barnicle (Sheik), Grace Bradford (Harem Girl), Sean Colby (Reptile Man), Nathaniel Dombek (Roustabout/Todd Browning), Kurt Perry (Bearded Lady), Schuyler White (Geek) and Abigail Worthing (Fortune Teller). 

“Side Show” is packed with musical numbers to get your toes tapping. Highlights include the lively “We Share Everything” and the jazzy “The Devil You Know.” 

It’s a diverting and heartwarming piece that whisks you back to the days of vaudeville and all the zaniness of the time. Since most of the theater’s patrons weren’t alive then, “Side Show” serves as a fitting tribute to Portland Players’ anniversary, providing an entertaining window into the era in which the theater was born.

April Boyse is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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