Book and lyrics by Bill Russell; Music by Henry Krieger; Additional book material and direction by Bill Condon
Broadway, Musical Revival
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street
by Ben Coleman on 11.17.2014
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie in Side Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: This beloved though problematic musical gets a retooled, rewritten, and re-scored production (and a swell young cast), making Side Show one of the #1 attractions on Broadway this season.
With revivals of Side Show and The Elephant Man springing up in New York’s theatre district, it is clear that Broadway is visiting the circus this year. Even the popular TV series American Horror Story has decided to take up residency at the “Freak Show." One can speculate the reason for our culture’s recent interest, but in the case of Side Show, it is the socially-driven message behind the story of the conjoined Hilton twins that makes this musical a relevant and worthy addition to this year’s theatre season. True, the message and themes about acceptance and adversity have been prevalent in Side Show since it opened on Broadway in 1997 (launching the careers of musical theatre stalwarts Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner). Yet it’s really those power ballads (“Who Will Love Me As I Am”, “You Should Be Loved”, and of course, “I Will Never Leave You”) that have allowed this musical to endure for the past seventeen years, despite the flawed book, which arguably led to the original production’s premature closure after three months.
But it is musicals like these – those with strong music and a big heart – that I am more hopeful for when it comes time for their revival (I’m holding out for the 2030 production of Fortress of Solitude). In the case of Side Show, this retooled production makes all the right changes, becoming something more rare and uncommon than the oddest of oddities – a musical with a strong book. Making a musical is probably one of the most difficult of creative endeavors; but when all those moving parts manage to gel, the experience can be quite spectacular. While Side Show might have fallen prey to typical new musical pitfalls the first time around, this revival thwarts many of the original oversights and has morphed itself into a rather terrific attraction.
Side Show tells the true story of the Hilton sisters; a pair of British twins who were born conjoined. We first meet them when showbiz impresario Teddy Conner (the very fine and vocally luminescent Ryan Silverman) pays a visit to the side show to scout new and unusual talent with his vaudeville friend, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik, a wonderful song & dance man, with some serious tenor notes). The Hilton twins, Daisy and Violet, recount their unfortunate upbringing in an effectively staged segment that shows them traveling to the United States to be gawked at, harassed, and ultimately sold to an abusive man who puts them on display at the side show. Terry and Buddy convince the girls to trade in their life amongst the “freaks” for a life in high society as the headliners of the Orpheum Circuit. The story follows these remarkable sisters and their path toward fame, love and marriage, and ultimately back to exploitation. The unique bond shared by these two women makes for some highly engaging and emotionally rewarding moments on stage; but in actuality, the Hiltons are always commodified and never really treated as humans, giving Side Show a rawness that makes the audience incapable of turning our eyes away from the stage, or our hearts away from this melancholic (if sometimes melodramatic) tale.
Fans of the original will notice significant edits to the score, but while there have been additions and subtractions in the music department, the time period and mood are credibly rendered, and the iconic numbers remain (along with those sappy electric guitar slides). From David St. Louis' rumbling baritone as Jake to the pristine and eerily beautiful blend of the Hilton sisters, this will undoubtedly be one of the best sung revivals of recent years.
Now on to those alluring songstresses, Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, as Daisy and Violet respectively. It is almost impossible to distance these characters from the actresses who originated them. Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley made a fabulous duo because of two strong individual personalities that were forcibly joined together; exciting they may be, but would both of those voices really emerge from the same set of conjoined DNA? What makes Davie and Padgett so mesmerizing, aside from their own unique talents, is the fact that this pair is highly believable as sisters (which goes beyond their costuming). Davie certainly holds down the soprano section of this duo, while Padgett brasses up the belting areas; they blend so well together that it almost seems like two sets of vocal cords residing within one throat. Padgett brings a steely resolve to Daisy, the more worldly of the twins (if that’s possible), delivering her comic zingers with plenty of zing; and Erin Davie is nothing short of a revelation. As the more vulnerable and fragile sister, Davie gives a heartbreaking performance that is surely the high point of her career.
In director Bill Condon’s production, the drab, bleak world of the side show stands in perfect contrast to the flashy, sequined world of vaudeville, and Condon navigates both gracefully as he takes us through the life and career of the Hilton sisters. Much like the show’s conjoined protagonists, Side Show the musical was pushed aside and snubbed as it searched for legitimate recognition. This revival steps out of the darkness, not to ask “Who Will Love Me As I Am”, but rather, “Who Will Love Me with this very smart set of alterations?” In doing so, Condon’s production takes a problematic musical and dresses it in more sophisticated garments. The bones of the original still provide much of the show’s shape, but on the whole, it has been refined and gussied up, and now comfortably stands in the spot light.
(Side Show plays at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays at 7PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. There are schedule changes during the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's; see sideshowbroadway.com for more information. Tickets are between $49 – $145 and can be purchased at www.telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)