"Come Look at the Freaks" is the unnerving song that opens and closes this uncommonly edgy 1997 musical. Bill Russell's sublime book and lyrics and marvelous music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) masterfully blend wry humor and zesty vaudevillian ditties with darker elements. This superb Orange County-premiere rendition mines the material for maximum fun and psychological depth.
Set in the 1920s and '30s, the story is inspired by real-life characters, the Hilton sisters, who were conjoined twins. Their abnormality was cruelly exploited in carnivals, vaudeville, and briefly in Hollywood films. In Russell's freewheeling dramatization, the siblings pine for social acceptance. The stars-in-her-eyes Daisy (Natalie Sachse) lusts for showbiz fame, while the heart-on-her-sleeve Violet (Jeanette Phillips) pines for romantic love — obviously a problematic prospect under the circumstances. When aspiring performer Buddy (Daniel Dawson) and talent scout Terry (Steven Arlen) enter the twins' lives, there's a glimmer of hope the women will realize their dreams.
Director-choreographer TJ Dawson leads a first-rate ensemble through a vibrant and atmospheric production, driven by ironic transitions between Broadway-style glitz and heart-wrenching drama. The score brims with powerful ballads that impart an operatic potency. Daisy and Violet's glorious 11 o'clock number, "I Will Never Leave You," brings the story's twists and turns full circle, back to a note of optimism. Sachse and Phillips sing splendidly and deliver incisive characterizations. Arlen excels as a dashing leading man who turns out to be less than a Prince Charming. Dawson is a delightful song-and-dance man and deftly illuminates Buddy's conflicting emotions. In the pivotal role of Jake, the African American carnival hand who is smitten with Violet, Jay Donnell is blessed with a booming and gorgeous voice. He achieves strong empathy, particularly in the stirring ballad "You Should Be Loved."
Brit Masterson's versatile and thrilling lighting effects heighten the drama, Courtney Suter contributes wonderful costumes, and Kiana St. Laurent's minimalist set design is effective. Music director Arie Gonzalez and his eight-person orchestra achieve fine results. La Habra's impeccably crafted production raises a perplexing question: Why is this Tony-nominated gem so seldom revived?
Presented by and at the La Habra Depot Theatre, 311 S. Euclid St., La Habra. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Sep. 22-Oct. 14. (562) 905-9625. www.lhdepottheatre.org.