With the many hours they spend practicing lines, learning songs and battling nerves as they portray characters on stage, it’s no wonder actors bond with each other like family members.
But two Chandler teenagers are perhaps forming an even stronger alliance than actors in other productions as they are playing conjoined twin sisters in a musical at Limelight Performing Arts in Gilbert.
Gracie Gamble, 13, and Jessica Montecalvo, 14, take on the roles of teenage Violet Hilton and Daisy Hilton, respectively, in the musical “Side Show” later this month at the theater.
The musical is about the ups and downs of the real-life Hilton twins, born in England in 1908, who captured the world’s attention as they performed in a traveling circus, vaudeville and movies.
Gracie, an eighth-grader at Horizon Honors Secondary School in Ahwatukee, and Jessica, a freshman at Hamilton High School in Chandler, are learning how to walk, stand, sit and even dance together in the unusual roles.
Jessica said many people have often said she and Gracie look alike. In rehearsals, a string is tied around both of them to keep them moving together. In the shows, they will wear costumes that are sewn together.
They even dance with two partners, creating a quartet of actors moving together, and at one rehearsal, Gracie said, it was “hard going down stairs” as a unit.
Both have performed in many other plays and musicals in the East Valley and taken dance classes.
“I thought it was super-cool and something different,” Jessica said about learning about the musical. “I just wanted to see how the conjoined twins would work.”
Gracie echoed that sentiment.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, how is that gonna work?’” she said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m honored to act out this part.’ They’re real people.”
Though the girls form a close physical and emotional bond in the musical, they explain Violet and Daisy had distinct personalities.
They say Daisy was flirtatious and wanted to perform in vaudeville and become famous. Violet was more reserved and wanted to settle down with a husband, they added.
The budding East Valley actresses have forged close bonds with the fellow actors in the musical, about 30 youths ranging from ages 8 to 18.
“When you’re in a cast, you all get so close,” Gracie said. “It’s like your second family.”
Besides being among the star characters, Gracie and Jessica play other roles in the musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1997 and closed in 1998. “Side Show” was revived and returned to the Broadway stage in 2014.
Both local girls perform in the ensemble, and Gracie is also a sword swallower while Jessica plays a snake charmer.
Other Chandler area youths are also getting their moments in the spotlight in “Side Show” at the Gilbert theater.
Annabelle Skala, 15, a sophomore at Queen Creek High School, plays the adult version of Daisy in the musical. Samantha Timothy, 17, a senior at Campo Verde High School, of Gilbert, plays the adult version of Violet.
Kayla King, 13, of Chandler plays a fortune teller, suitor and cherub and serves as one of the dance captains and an assistant vocal coach for the musical. Tate Chernen, 15, of Chandler plays the Geek, Ray and a creepy doctor.
Emma England, owner of Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy and artistic director and board president of Limelight Performing Arts, said Chandler has many talented, artistic youths.
She is a Chandler High School graduate and wears many hats for “Side Show,” including choreographer, music director and set designer.
She said “Side Show” captures some, but not all of the dark moments in the twins’ lives.
“We knew that we were going to have a show two weeks before Halloween,” England of Gilbert said. “I chose ‘Side Show’ because it has a kind of whole Halloween-esque feel. It’s actually a really family-friendly show.”
The musical deals with some heavy topics, including how the twins were exploited and their decision on whether to try to be separated, but it’s appropriate for all ages to see, she said.
“Side Show” conveys the message that people should accept themselves as they are. “We’re all different and we all have something to offer this world,” England said. “It goes back to being in someone else’s shoes.”
The twists and turns in the story of the Hilton sisters also appealed to Jessica.
Jamie Bauer-Spano, “Side Show” director and a teaching artist, said the musical reveals the Hilton sisters from “their journey from leaving the side show and rising to fame and then making a movie called ‘Freaks.’”
Born in Brighton, England, the twins did not share any major organs but were joined at the hip and buttocks. Their mother was reportedly unmarried and gave her babies to a midwife to raise.
News accounts show the midwife and her husband made money off the twins, charging people at a pub to see them and hear them play instruments, and later the Hilton sisters performed in a carnival sideshow before moving to the United States.
After the midwife died, her daughter and her daughter’s husband managed the Hilton girls’ careers and the twins performed in vaudeville.
Daisy and Violet Hilton performed in two movies, “Freaks” in 1932 and “Chained for Life” in 1952. Despite their fame, they suffered physical and emotional abuse in their lives.
People who managed their careers reportedly stole money from them, and they ended up in poverty, working in a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina, until their deaths.
The musical’s meaning is not lost on the young actors.
“I feel like it is about accepting your differences,” Gracie said. “It’s about learning to adapt to your family. They fall in love with people and it’s a big train wreck. It takes third wheel to another level.”
Jessica said the Hilton twins seemed to take rude comments in stride. “It’s sad that people call them freaks,” she said.
“Side Show” will be performed Friday-Sunday, Oct. 20-22, Oct. 25 and Oct. 27-29 at Limelight Performing Arts, 511 W. Guadalupe Road in Gilbert. For tickets, times and more information: limelight.ticketleap.com/sideshow.