'Side Show': Theater Review

Side Show Production Still - H 2014
Joan Marcus

Side Show Production Still - H 2014

A bold reimagining that pays off in spades

Directing his first stage project, Bill Condon brings dazzling showmanship and emotional power to this musical about conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton

While the commercially disastrous 1997 Broadway run of Side Show generated a substantial cult following, the big surprise for those of us coming to it fresh is that its exotic subject matter — real-life conjoined twin sisters who became fixtures on the 1930s vaudeville circuit — adheres so naturally to the central theme that drives countless contemporary musicals. That would be the hunger of the outsider to be loved in a world of crushing conformity, encapsulated here in the Act I closing number, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" Bill Condon's fabulous "revisal" maximizes the material's strengths and minimizes its weaknesses, serving up mesmerizing entertainment veined throughout with haunting poignancy.

Condon originally was drawn to the property as a potential directorial follow-up to his breakthrough film Gods and Monsters, the tender 1998 drama about James Whale's final years, which has lovely thematic echoes here. While the screen project failed to come together, Condon did later direct Dreamgirls, consolidating his connection with composer Henry Krieger, who also wrote the music for Side Show.

The musical's new version has been radically reworked, with some songs from the 1997 production excised while others have been added, including both previously discarded and new numbers. Condon also has collaborated with Bill Russell, writer of the book and lyrics, to fortify the characters and their conflicts. Most notably, he fleshes out the sad backstory of Daisy and Violet Hilton (Emily Padgett and Erin Davie), British sisters abandoned by their unwed mother and raised by an exploitative midwife, known as Auntie (Blair Ross). After taking the twins to America in search of fortune and fame, Auntie promptly died and left them under the abusive management of her husband, a malevolent carnival barker whom the girls address as Sir (played with creepy command by Robert Joy).

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While Robert Longbottom's pared-down original production relied to a great extent on poetic imagination, Condon puts the sideshow exhibits on lurid display, starting with the intoxicating opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks." This has the unexpected effect, however, not of vulgarizing but humanizing not only Daisy and Violet, but their entire "odditorium" family — bearded lady, three-legged man, human canine, dwarf Cossacks, half man-half woman and all.

The first act skillfully draws us into this shadowy world, which richly evokes Depression-era America, and makes us care deeply about the sisters. Condon's casting is a key factor in defining them as inextricably linked at the hip, literally and figuratively, but also as two distinct human beings whose dreams and desires often clash. Daisy is the brazen spotlight seeker, starved for excitement, while Violet is the sweet introvert who just wants to settle down. Yet, despite their fundamental differences, their closeness extends far beyond the physical. It's touching just watching one of them reach out instinctively to hold the other's hand or drape a protective arm around her sister's shoulder.

Davie and Padgett simply couldn't be better. With meticulous work from the wig, makeup and costuming departments, they pass convincingly for identical twins. And the synchronization of their movements is as remarkable as their exquisite vocal harmonization. Their performances are both symbiotic and beautifully individualized.

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The smooth charmer who lures them away from the sideshow is vaudeville circuit talent scout Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman), whose friend Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) is enlisted to polish up the sisters' song and dance skills. This doesn't go over well with Sir, their legal guardian, prompting a court battle over charges of abuse. Terry invites the sideshow's "Cannibal King," Jake (David St. Louis), to come along as an assistant. Jake watches in pain from the margins throughout much of the show, smoldering with undeclared love for Violet. And even as the sisters find success, Condon has the "freaks" reappear at intervals as silent witnesses, an effective reminder that Daisy and Violet have never entirely left that stigmatized world behind.

Act II loses some fluidity, as Condon and Russell juggle the various romantic and personal conflicts that threaten to drive a wedge between the sisters. Buddy, who's frightened of being exposed as gay, proposes to Violet, and she accepts despite her consternation, getting caught up in a media circus of wedding plans. This development, along with Jake's unrequited love, serves to underline how homosexuals and blacks were outsiders just like the sisters and their fellow carnies.

Less persuasive is the revelation of Terry's tortured feelings for Daisy, which sputter out of nowhere in the song "Private Conversation." While this does yield a graceful Fred and Ginger dance routine for Silverman and Padgett that plays out in Terry's mind (Anthony van Laast did the choreography), some additional foreshadowing to indicate hidden depths beneath his strictly business exterior might have helped. What does work, however, is that Terry becomes the instigator in a bid to have the sisters surgically separated, a procedure they previously had been led to believe could result in the death of one or both of them.

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Irrespective of any awkwardness that creeps into the plot-heavy storytelling, the flaws are never enough to take us out of the show's enveloping world or to compromise our investment in the fates of Violet and Daisy. If the thwarted romances are less satisfying, that's only because the love story between the sisters — and the internal struggle between their separation anxiety and their longing to be free — is so heartbreakingly real that nothing else comes close to its overwhelming emotional impact. And when Hollywood comes calling, via director Tod Browning (Don Richard), the cruel double edge of their twisted conquest of the American Dream is shattering.

As in Dreamgirls, where he successfully mimicked the Motown sound, Krieger is an expert pastiche artist, and his approximations of 1930s song styles fit the material to perfection. At the top of the second act, the show recalls Follies in its use of vaudeville numbers as a droll commentary on the characters' real lives. Unlikely as it may seem, those songs are seamlessly integrated with a smattering of power ballads that owe more to the '80s, their big-ass key changes recalling the diva reign of Mariah, Celine and Whitney. Krieger even references himself in Jake's stirring "You Should Be Loved," which lifts its breathless closing gasps from "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

But even when it borders on kitsch, the music pulls you in. It's not a top-tier score but it's a very good one, melodic and memorable despite lyrics that can be a tad literal and emphatic. (If there's a synonym for coupled, connected, joined, tied, united, etc., left untouched by Russell, I must have missed it.)

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Condon has assembled a stellar design team, and one of the constant sources of pleasure is the production's resourceful employment of period-appropriate staging techniques like shadow play. David Rockwell's sets make atmospheric use of painted drops, flats and scrims, subtly enhanced by projections, and Paul Tazewell's lavish costumes are stunning. Among many enchanting touches, the sideshow attractions rely on prosthetic creature makeup and effects (by Dave and Lou Elsey) redolent of vintage movies. The embrace of old-fashioned showbiz sleight of hand is completed by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, magicians of the spotlight, who create a bewitching world of gloom and glitter that never ceases to captivate the eye.

Side Show may never be a classic musical, but in this superb production it's a hypnotic spectacle that packs an emotional wallop. Step right up.

Cast: Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Matthew Hydzik, Robert Joy, Ryan Silverman, David St. Louis, Brandon Bieber, Matthew Patrick Davis, Charity Angel Dawson, Lauren Elder, Derek Hanson, Javier Ignacio, Jordanna James, Kevin Moon Loh, Barrett Martin, Con O’Shea Creal, Don Richard, Blair Ross, Hannah Shankman, Michaeljon Slinger, Josh Walker

Director: Bill Condon

Music: Henry Krieger

Book and lyrics: Bill Russell

Additional book material: Bill Condon

Set costumer: David Rockwell

Costume designer: Paul Tazewell

Lighting designers: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer

Sound designer: Peter Hylenski

Special makeup effects designers: Dave Elsey, Lou Elsey

Music director and arrangements: Sam Davis

Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler

Choreographer: Anthony van Laast

Presented by Darren Bagert, Martin Massman, Jayne Baron Sherman, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Universal Stage Productions, Joined at the Hip Productions, Shadowcatcher Entertainment, CJ E&M/Mike Coolik, Michael M. Kaiser, Jim Kierstead, Marc David Levine, Clear Channel Spectacolor, Catherine & Fred Adler, Curtis Forsythe, Gloken, Highbrow & Nahem, Nobile Lehner Shea Productions, Pretty Freaks, Weatherby & Fishman, Matthew Masten, Jujamcyn Theaters, in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, La Jolla Playhouse