There's a sadly beautiful scene in the film “Freaks” when the sideshow attractions get away from gawking crowds for a picnic.
The Living Torso, Human Skeleton, “Siamese” twins and the others frolic and sniff sweet meadow air, liberated from judgmental onlookers. Though the horror film ends with grim vengeance wreaked on a “normal” man who betrays one of them, the idea that they have the same capacity for happiness as all of us comes through in this interlude.
Multiply those moments by a factor of 30, and you have the slender but endearing “Side Show,” which Queen City Theatre Company has mounted in a surprisingly grand manner at intimate McGlohon Theatre.
It's a musical about Violet and Daisy Hilton, the conjoined twins from “Freaks,” and their rise to such notoriety that the former was wed in the Cotton Bowl during the Texas Centennial in 1936. (That marriage was soon annulled.)
Composer Henry Krieger and author/librettist Bill Russell play fast and loose with their subject. The Hiltons, British girls who emigrated to America, were treated harshly by guardians but not exposed to such degrading conditions as we see. Director Tod Browning shows up at Violet's wedding to hire the sisters for “Freaks,” but the filming predated that event by five years.
Yet, “Side Show” gets under their joint skin in a believable way, exploring their lack of privacy, mutual dependence and troubled search for satisfying love from men. (Daisy married for one month in 1941.) It ends when they're in their 20s, and the second act mostly repeats the first with one twist. But it rarely seems long when performed with such loving care.
Director Glenn Griffin and choreographer Eddie Mabry exploit every inch of the stage, and costumer Stuart Williams has worked wonders: His designs are apt, easy on the eyes and genuinely opulent in the siblings' vaudeville number.
Alyson Lowe and Sydney Shepherd are so well-matched as impetuous Daisy and shy Violet that we're startled whenever the script has them separate for a dream sequence: They seem so connected physically (at the hip) and in touch emotionally that they appear to share a brain and heart, too.
The male cast is more variable, sometimes struggling with Krieger's free-flowing score. Strong-voiced Marcus Sherman stands out as Jake, the steadfast friend whose own isolating condition – the hue of his black skin – keeps him from declaring his love for Violet.
P.S. The real twins (who would have been 100 last February) lived for seven years in Charlotte, where they ended up after a 1962 publicity tour for “Freaks.” They took a job at the Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard, died in 1969 and are buried at Forest Lawn West Cemetery off Freedom Drive.