A few weeks ago, Charlotte actors Alyson Lowe and Sydney Shepherd were on their way to a rehearsal for “Side Show,” a musical based on the real-life story of the conjoined-twin Hilton sisters.
Lowe and Shepherd were driving separate cars.
They approached the same intersection.
They made the same wrong turn.
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“We were both late,” Lowe says, laughing. “It's like we share a brain now.”
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born fused at the hip, in England in 1908, and ended their lives together in Charlotte in the late 1960s. “Side Show,” opening this week at Spirit Square, chronicles the Hiltons' singular sisterly bond, the men whose hearts they touched and the exploitative show business managers they finally escaped.
The musical has been something of a freak itself. “Side Show” opened on Broadway in 1997 and ran just a few months, but later was nominated for four Tonys, including an unprecedented dual nod for stars Alice Ripley (sister of actor Scott Ripley, lately of Davidson) and Emily Skinner (who recently performed her one-woman show here). It's enjoyed a healthy second life on regional stages, venues better suited to the story's intimacy than a big Broadway house. Cast recordings have gained cult status among musical theater fans.
“It's a beautiful story,” says Lowe, who plays the more outgoing character of Daisy. “It speaks volumes about tolerance and self-acceptance and love, familial love as well as romantic love.”
“I think we can all identify with this story at some point,” says Shepherd, who plays the more quiet, romantic Violet. “We've all felt like a freak. We've all felt on the outside of something that we've yearned for.”
But it took an ambitious fringe troupe, Queen City Theatre Co., to stage this strange chapter in local history. The production, opening Thursday in McGlohon Theatre, will be QCTC's biggest and most expensive by far, with a five-piece band, dozens of period costumes and wigs custom-made in New York.
“Lots of people in Charlotte have always wanted to do this show,” says director Glenn Griffin, a member of the musical's unofficial fan club since seeing the original Broadway production. “But there was this idea that ‘Side Show' wasn't a hit, that it was too dark and difficult…. Maybe it's a little different and unusual, but it's really worth going along for the ride.”
The show has been a ride already for Lowe and Shepherd, who began their work tied together by a sash around their hips. They spent hours just learning how to walk, turn, sit and stand in tandem. Then came the acting, singing and choreography. (Yes, the Hilton sisters danced.)
“It's one of the most challenging things I've ever done as an actor,” Shepherd says.
At the same time, Lowe adds, “I feel really comforted knowing she (Shepherd) is there.”
Both women suspect that when “Side Show” is over, it won't be easy to go back to acting alone.
“Even after just three hours of rehearsal every night, Alyson and I find it hard to walk by ourselves... There's already a feeling of physical absence,” Shepherd says.
They understand why the real Violet and Daisy chose not to be separated when doctors said it was possible.
“There was so much sisterly affection and love there,” Shepherd says. “That was who they were.”